Rik Smits


Hoe taal de mens maakte

How language made man

How did the human ability to communicate through language arise? Unlike insects and animals we all command one or more unique tongues, each with its own variants, adding up to billions of words worldwide. In Dawn Rik Smits presents a challenging vision of a subject that has not yet been fully researched.

Smits’ view is that language cannot initially have arisen as a system of communication. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, everything suggests otherwise. Language, he claims, is a product of the integration of capacities each of which evolved for its own reasons. Man is one of nature’s most vulnerable creatures, and the only substitute for strength is wisdom. We are unique in being able to aim and throw accurately. Our skills at calculation and estimation developed until they were sufficient to accommodate a system as complex as grammar.

Only after our linguistic ability emerged could we think logically and share our reasoning with others, at which point almost everything we now call culture took off at a great rate. Smits concludes that language cannot have long predated the invention of agriculture in the Middle East, some 14,000 years ago. This huge advance in civilization made abstract powers of reasoning indispensable for the first time, along with highly developed concepts of identity, past, present and future, all of which rely upon language.

Smits’ explanation of the origins of language throws new light on cave paintings by Cro-Magnon man, whose masterpieces of 40,000 to 15,000 years ago have been found at Altamira, Lascaux and elsewhere. Anatomically Cro-Magnons were modern humans, but they had no language in the modern sense. Their minds were so fundamentally different from ours that we would have had difficulty making ourselves understood to them. They certainly could not have conversed with us; they had no gods or religion comparable to ours and probably no real sense of eroticism. These things dawned later, as a result of the wonderful, accidental by-product of evolution known as language.

  • Why language has nothing in common with systems of communication between animals
  • What phantom limbs tell us about how our brains work
  • Why prehistoric Venus figurines have no erotic significance

Smits chronicles the genesis of language with relish and at an enjoyable pace. He launches an original, personal theory about the history of man the conversationalist.

De Volkskrant

A richly informative and powerfully articulate book.


Rik Smits

Rik Smits is a linguist, a science journalist and the author of books on a wide range of subjects, including The Left-Handed Picador. On left- and right-handedness: facts and fabrications (1993; translated into German) and (with Liesbeth Koenen) the Handbook of Dutch (2004).…

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Dageraad. Hoe taal de mens maakte (2009). Non-fiction, 272 pages.
Words: 78,000
Copies sold: 4,000

With illustrations in black-and-white and references


Nieuw Amsterdam

Johannes Vermeerstraat 63
1071 DN Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 570 61 00
Fax: +31 20 570 61 99

[email protected]

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