The Ascent Of Babel

An exploration of language, mind,
and understanding


Original graphic by Andrea Enziger. Text and graphic Copyright Gerry Altmann, 1996.


Draft excerpt from "The Ascent of Babel". 1996 Gerry T.M. Altmann



Looking Towards Babel

Someone once said that a good title for a book about language would be "Teach Your Dog to Talk". It has all the ingredients necessary for instant mass appeal; dogs are popular, and teaching them to do just about anything at all is a challenge. So teaching a dog to talk would really be something. The title would convey instant mystery; how could anyone teach a dog to do that? The trouble is, another title that would be at least as appealing would be "Teach Your Dog to Juggle". Who really cares about talking? We all manage pretty well at it, without even being taught how to do it. So a whole book about talking, and how we do it, sounds about as interesting as an entire book on walking, and how we do that. Juggling, on the other hand, or on any hand come to that, is something else.

Language, unlike juggling, is a human faculty that we take for granted, like having two legs, two arms, one head. Nobody taught us to have two legs, just as no one taught us to listen, to understand, to make sense of a whole jumble of sounds. Imagine what it must be like for the 180 or so babies born each minute to suddenly hear such a cacophony of noise. Obstetricians say that the reason a newborn baby cries when naked is that it is cold. It has never felt that before. It has never seen bright lights. It has never heard the sound of a human voice, the sound of its own voice, a dog's bark, the cars outside, the aeroplane overhead. And yet somehow, it manages to make sense of the different sounds it hears; it learns to hear patterns in those sounds, and associate meanings with those patterns, and even produce new patterns itself. It learns to communicate. As adults, we carry around knowledge about tens of thousands of different words; what they mean, how they should be spelled, how they sound, how to move the muscles in the lips and tongue to pronounce them, how to join them up to form sentences; in short, how to use them. As infants, we acquire that knowledge. How? No one questions that incredible feat. But learning to juggle, that really is something, apparently, to write home about.

We take our ability as a species to speak and hear (and understand) so much for granted that, more often than not, we fail to see the very real mystery surrounding how we manage to do this. How is all that information about all those words stored in the brain? How do we use that information? We can hardly open up a brain like a book and look up the words in the same way that we thumb through a dictionary. Even using a simple dictionary that you can thumb through involves knowledge about the way the dictionary is organized, the nature of the alphabet, the shapes of individual letters, and so on. So if we could thumb through a brain, and look up the information that it contains, where would all this other knowledge, about how to use the brain-dictionary, be? And wherever it is, where did it come from? We rarely appreciate how overworked our babies are; they have to do much more than just use their brain-dictionaries, they have to create them in the first place, and figure out a way of using them. And who helps them? Making sense of the spoken langauge we provide them with is hardly an easy task. Speech is quite unlike writing. Its words are quite different:


The majority of the spoken language that we hear around us is just one long continuous, changing sound - just listen to someone speaking a language you have never heard before. Basically, language is a nightmare. Yes, da Vinci and Einstein were clever, but your average baby is not doing badly in the brilliance stakes.

So the mystery is there, and like any mystery, it has its fair share of intrigue, excitement, discovery, argument, and counter-argument. Just as cosmologists and quantum physicists search for a unified theory of the universe, so psycholinguists search for a unified theory of how we produce and understand language. The scientific methods used in their search can be just as rigorous and scientific, and the theories just as plausible (or implausible). The excitement is just as great. When scientists discovered that the background radiation in the universe was not uniform, but had ripples in it (much like ripples in water), it made front page news in many of the world's major newspapers; the excitement this news generated arose because, quite simply, it told us something about how the universe was constructed; how it came into being. That knowledge alone was worth telling to the world. And yet, language, like ripples in the radiation bathing the universe, can tell us something about the mind, and how it is constructed. At the end of the day, it comes down to simple aesthetics; you may be excited by the mysteries of the cosmos, or the mysteries of the mind. Psycholinguists are excited by the mysteries of language.


This excerpt is copyright 1996 Gerry T.M. Altmann. It may not be modified or quoted in any way whatsoever without permission from the author.


Reviews of The Ascent of Babel


How is language constructed? How does a child learn to speak and read? What do we mean by "mean"? Gerry Altmann's fascinating The Ascent of Babel is an extraordinarily accessible introduction to psycholinguistics, equally valuable to students of the subject, to linguists, psychologists, philosophers and the general reader. Altmann's use of humorous examples makes it a pleasure to read.

-- New Scientist


A no-punches-pulled but very clear account of how language works, from a different perspective to that of, for example, Steven Pinker. The subject is eternally fascinating, and the debates it raises may never be resolved. But Altmann's contribution is sober, authoritative and comprehensive, while also being comprehensible.

-- The Good Book Guide


Recent developments in the study of the brain have brought a spate of new books on the subject. Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works (a best-selling selection here at the bookstore) has been widely praised for both its insights into the brain and its accessible and witty style. Very much in that ilk is Gerry Altmann's psycholinguistic study of the mind's grasp of language and meaning. Thankfully, Altmann eschews textbook language, while maintaining a sophisticated and rich account of how the mind produces and understands language. Altmann begins his study with a look at the neural structures of the mind as they develop in the fetus (one of Altmann's arguments is that language understanding is not only in the mental structures but also the neural structures) through infancy and childhood. In addition to looking at how the human brain transforms sounds into meaning, The Ascent of Babel also how explores how we speak and write language, as well as how recent developments in artificial intelligence is changing the way we understand the accumulation of language. Altmann's book is one of those rare scholarly books that takes a complex subject, providing insights that excite rather than confuse or simplify.

-- The Seminary Co-op Bookstore (A bookstore in Chicago)


Gerry Altmann has done something remarkable: He has given us a book which simultaneously captures the mystery and wonder of language--in a way that can be understood by any nonspecialist--while also providing a sophisticated and rich account of the most current and advanced research in psycholinguistics. 'The Ascent of Babel' is not written like a textbook, but it educates the reader better than any textbook could. Altmann covers a wide range of topics, and he does not shirk from complex phenomena. But in Altmann's hands, the complexity of language excites rather than confuses, and he reminds us how amazing is this behavior which we so often take for granted.

-- Jeffrey L. Elman, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California at San Diego


Using language fills most of our day, most of our life. Gerry Altmann seduces us with a surprisingly light-touch in a witty, refreshing account of the intricacies of this most human of all skills, its feats and its failures. It is a masterful, state-of-the-art reflexion of psycholinguistic science.

-- Willem Levelt, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen.


Why do humans have language whilst chimpanzees don't? How do babies learn to speak? How do we extract meaning from the noise of speech? Gerry Altmann steers a sure course through these hot research topics and controversial theories with a lightness of touch which makes The Ascent of Babel a real pleasure to read.

-- Steven Rose, Brain and Behaviour Research Group, The Open University


The Ascent of Babel discusses fascinating questions on especially the origins and development of language, with answers based on a very wide range of experiments. It is highly readable, with a useful bibliography of original papers on the key findings, and general reading on language, mind, and understanding.

-- Richard Gregory, University of Bristol


Altmann has written a cross between a textbook for beginning psycholinguistic students and a popular science book for laypersons. The audiences for both are similar, but trying to address both leads to an occasionally inconsistent book. Though, as Altmann says in the introduction (quoting Doris Lessing), one should skip however much is necessary to keep the book interesting. Not much needs skipping. Altmann explains in lay terms what psycholinguistics is and how its findings affect what we know of human experience. He also makes clear why experiments are designed the way they are and the inferences drawn from the results. For anyone who has ever pondered why babies speak only their native language, how dyslexics misperceive language, what language learning tells us about human behavior in general, what Noam Chomsky did before becoming a guru, or (especially interesting to readers) the relation of writing to speech, this book explains all in a clear, simple, if sometimes dry manner. Like most good science books, this tells how we know, not what we know. --Kevin Grandfield [my response: oh well, you can't please all of the people all of the time...]

-- Booklist (The American Library Association)