New Scientist
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.

The Good Book Guide

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.

A bookstore in Chicago

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

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

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

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

Richard Gregory
, University of Bristol
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.

(The American Library Association)
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...]

Naples Daily News
About the miracle of language ... Friday, May 28, 1999 By KEN MOORE, Staff Writer "The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind and Understanding" offers everything you ever wanted to know about the miracle of language, and then a lot more - perhaps more than you want to know. NOTES "The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind and Understanding," by Gerry T. M. Altmann (Oxford University Press; softcover, $16.95). Don't misunderstand, however. It's an interesting enough tome about a subject that holds little fascination. Imagine, the progression from grunts to words probably dates to between 200,000 and 2 million years. Today, there are about 5,000 languages throughout the world. Author Gerry T. M. Altmann estimates that in the next 50 years, 2,500 languages will become extinct. Already, 95 percent of the world's population now speaks fewer than 100 languages. Consider, too, places like New Guinea, where natives speak 700 different languages and an untold number of dialects within those languages. The average adult of any nationality has a vocabulary of between 60,000 and 75,000 words, but regularly uses perhaps only 30,000 words. Consider, too, the difficulty in establishing a dictionary for Oriental languages. In Chinese, for instance, each character is a word unto itself. All this confusion may be rooted in the Biblical Tower of Babel. According to the Bible, God saw the populace building a tower in an attempt to reach heaven. To prevent that, God scattered people throughout the Earth and forced upon them different languages so they couldn't understand each other and work on the tower would stop. Don't scoff. Scientists say there really was a Tower of Babel.

Here are three other reviews in PDF format:

The first is by Simon Garrod, and appeared in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

The second is by Shelia Kennison and appeared in the journal Applied Psycholinguistics.

The third is by Roy Harris, and appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement. I was advised by various people not to read this review, and I have followed their advice. I do not know Roy Harris, although I gather he intensely dislikes the book, and psycholinguistics more generally. Fortunately, his views appear not to have been shared by the British Psychological Society who selected The Ascent of Babel as the winner of the 2000 British Psychological Society Book Award.