I recently finished the copy of John L. Locke’s recent Eavesdropping: An Intimate History that the publisher was good enough to send me, and I feel that it has given me a new keyhole through which to peep at the world. Eavesdropping would not, on the face of it, seem to have much to do with language as such, and yet the author is Professor of Linguistics at Lehman College. He says in the prologue that a colleague asked him why he had chosen the subject, which “must have seemed a radical departure from my previous work on the psychology of language.” Locke explained that he “had come across Marjorie McIntosh’s analysis of court records indicating that five and six centuries ago, English citizens had, in impressive numbers, been arrested for eavesdropping” and wondered “what, in the medieval mind, would have caused this behavior to be criminalized, and what the ‘criminals’ themselves were doing, or thought they were doing”; he “had also begun to study ethology, a field that deals with behavior in a broad range of species, and had encountered the work of Peter McGregor”:
He pointed out that birds increase their chances of survival by monitoring the long-distance calls of other birds – signals that are not even intended for their ears. Such interceptions, McGregor noted, are ignored by all existing models of animal communication…. If real people also tune in to each other, and become usefully informed in the process, then theories of human communication must explain these things that real people do.
But they have not done so. … The reason why social scientists have failed to document equivalent levels of eavesdropping in humans, however, is not because they looked for it and discovered that there was nothing to be seen. They never looked in the first place.
Why they did not, I think, is linked to a long-standing tendency of philosophers and psychologists to put humans on a pedestal, to regard our species as more intelligent and rational than other animals. This view could not be sustained if humans were on a continuum with other primates and mammals, so they concentrated on the behaviors accounting for, and related to, Man’s best and highest accomplishments. Central to these was language, the symbolic code that enables speakers to consciously transmit thought to willing listeners. This kept other animals safely at bay but, paradoxically, also excluded important facts about human communication.
That’s an impressive and intriguing program for a study—a program, however, that this book only partially fulfills.
One problem is the lack of clear focus. Locke’s discussion of the development of walled living, as reflected in various tribes in remote areas and as hypothesized for our distant ancestors, is fascinating and sometimes riveting (the Mehinaku of Brazil can not only recognize each other’s footprints, they can draw them from memory!). I had never thought about what it must have been like to move from communal living, in which everyone knew what everyone else was up to and there was no such thing as private life, to a situation in which people had their own dwellings into which they could retreat; as Locke says, it required a long period of adaptation and turmoil. Interestingly, some groups, like the ǃKung of the Kalahari Desert (oddly for a linguist, he omits the initial !, representing a click consonant), use their huts only for storage and rarely enter them—they “rarely spend time alone,” and “to seek solitude is regarded as a bizarre form of behavior.” I would have preferred that he focus on this sort of material, and perhaps throw in a final chapter summing up more recent developments.
Unfortunately (from my point of view), most of the book deals with the last few centuries; there are some piquant anecdotes (and lots of illustrations of maids listening at doors and the like), but it’s hard to see what any of it has to do with language. What’s worse, it focuses entirely on Western Europe, really just on England and Paris, with a few excursuses into other parts. If you’re going to discuss the history of eavesdropping, how can you simply omit the Middle East, Asia, almost the entire world? Those regions have as rich a history of masters and servants, slander and gossip, as England and France. It’s all very well to say one man can’t cover all that material; in the first place, by asking colleagues and making use of the internet he could certainly have done at least a superficial job of it (and let’s face it, what he has is pretty superficial, as is only natural for a first study), but even if we accept that he had to limit his focus, he should have made it clear that he was doing so, and doing so with regret: “I hope that these first steps will be followed by scholars in Russia, China, Japan, and elsewhere who will mine the rich resources of their traditions…” But there is nothing like that, no indication that he is looking only at that tiny bit of civilization that happens to be convenient to hand and linguistically accessible. It all smacks a bit too much of traditional scholarship, in which it was assumed that if you covered the Greeks, Romans, French, and English, with a nod to the Germans, you’d covered all the ground that needed to be covered. I thought we had moved past that.
But that’s something of a quibble. There’s a great deal of interesting material here (did you know that “scolding” used to be an official crime, and that it could be committed only by women?), and it’s a good first step in an unaccountably untrodden field. It gives me the same feeling of discovery, of widening horizons, I used to have in anthropology class, all those years ago.