i love english language

Guy Deutscher – The Unfolding of Language (2005)




According to Deutscher, the motives for language change are:


1.      Economy



“Economy refers to the tendency to save effort, and is behind the short-cuts speakers often take in pronunciation.”


            “…when these short-cuts accumulate, they can create new sounds, just like a new footpath cutting through a field.”



2.      Expressiveness


…the constant battle against cliché and stale language / language bleached of meaning



“Expressiveness refers to speakers’ attempts to achieve greater effect for their utterances and extend their range of meaning. One area in which we are particularly expressive is in saying “no”. A plain “no” is often deemed too weak to convey the depth of our unenthusiasm, so to make sure that the right effect is achieved, we beef up “no” to “not at all”, “not a bit”, “no way”, “by no means”, “not in a million years”, and so on.”


            “…the results of this hyperbole can often be self-defeating, since the repetition of emphatic phrases can cause an inflationary process that devalues their currency.”




3.      Analogy


“…the mind’s craving for order, the instinctive need of speakers to find regularity in language.”


“The effects of analogy are most conspicuous in the errors of young children, as in “I goed.” or “two foots”, which are simply attempts to introduce regularity to areas of the language that happen to be quite disorganised.”


 … some of these innovations do catch on – note the reduction in irregular plural nouns in the English language.





The Unfolding of Language

an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention

by Guy Deutscher

How do languages evolve? Why does language always change? Does it decline or does it progress? What accounts for its extraordinary complexity? The Unfolding of Language responds to the big questions with big answers, along the way solving such mysteries as: 

*  Why we have feet and not foots.
*  How the French came to say “on the day of the day of this day” when they mean “today”.
*  Why German maidens are neuter but German turnips are female.
*  How Islam, Muslim, and Solomon are all variations on one Semitic root, s-l-m (“be at peace”).
*  Why the Turks seem to be talking ‘back to front’
*  Why most of the world’s languages don’t have a verb for “have
*  How words manage to accomplish a complete U-turn in their meaning – like the word “resent,” which, in the seventeenth century, meant “appreciate” or “feel grateful for”.
*  Why human intuition – as evidenced by all human languages – discovered the connection between space and time thousands of years before Einstein.
*  How the design of Sumerian (the language spoken 5,000 years ago by the people who kick-started history) is so sophisticated that even a gap in the middle of a word can convey specific information. 

Excerpts from The Unfolding of Language
Guy Deutscher, 2005

From the Introduction

Of all mankind’s manifold creations, language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our material existence, but the advent of language is what made us human. Compared to language, all other inventions pale in significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over all other animals, and even over nature itself.
    But language is foremost not just because it came first. In its own right it is a tool of extraordinary sophistication, yet based on an idea of ingenious simplicity: ‘this marvellous invention of composing out of twenty-five or thirty sounds that infinite variety of expressions which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to disclose to others its whole secret, and to make known to those who cannot penetrate it all that we imagine, and all the various stirrings of our soul’. This was how, in 1660, the renowned grammarians of the Port-Royal abbey near Versailles distilled the essence of language, and no one since has celebrated more eloquently the magnitude of its achievement.
    Even so, there is just one flaw in all these hymns of praise, for the homage to language’s unique accomplishment conceals a simple yet critical incongruity. Language is mankind’s greatest invention – except, of course, that it was never invented.  This apparent paradox is at the core of our fascination with language, and it holds many of its secrets. It is also what this book is about.

     Often, it is only the estrangement of foreign tongues, with their many exotic and outlandish features, that brings home the wonder of language’s design. One of the showiest stunts that some languages can pull off is an ability to build up words of breath-breaking length, and thus express in one word what English takes a whole sentence to say. The Turkish word şehirlileştiremediklerimizdensiniz, to take one example, means nothing less than ‘you are one of those whom we can’t turn into a town-dweller’. (In case you are wondering, this monstrosity really is one word, not merely many different words squashed together – most of its components cannot even stand up on their own.) And if that sounds like some one-off freak, then consider Sumerian, the language spoken on the banks of the Euphrates some 5,000 years ago by the people who invented writing and thus kick-started history. A Sumerian word like munintuma’a (‘when he made it suitable for her’) might seem rather trim compared to the Turkish colossus above. What is so impressive about it, however, is not its length, but rather the reverse: the thrifty compactness of its construction. The word is made up of different ‘slots’ mu n i n tum   a ’a , each corresponding to a particular portion of meaning. This sleek design allows even a single sound to convey useful information, and even the absence of a sound has been enlisted to express something specific. If you were to ask which bit in the Sumerian word corresponds to the pronoun ‘it’ in the English translation ‘when he made it suitable for her’, then the answer would have to be … nothing. Mind you, a very particular kind of nothing: the nothing that stands in the empty slot in the middle. The technology is so fine-tuned, then, that even a non-sound, when carefully placed in a particular position, has been invested with a specific function. Who could possibly have come up with such a nifty contraption?


This book will set out to unveil some of language’s secrets, and thereby attempt to dismantle the paradox of this great uninvented invention. Drawing on the recent discoveries of modern linguistics, I will try to expose the elusive forces of creation and thus reveal how the elaborate structure of language could have arisen. The ultimate aim, towards the end of the book, will be to embark on a fast-forward tour through the unfolding of language. Setting off from an early prehistoric age, when our ancestors only had names for some simple objects and actions, and only knew how to combine them into primitive utterances like ‘bring water’ or ‘throw spear’, we will trace the emergence of linguistic complexity and see how the extraordinary sophistication of today’s languages could gradually have evolved.


From Chapter 1: A Castle in the Air

…But it would be disingenuous not to mention another side of language, a less appealing aspect that I have so far conveniently overlooked. For wherever one finds impressive edifices in language, one is also likely to find scores of imperfections, a tangle of irregularities, redundancies and idiosyncrasies that mar the picture of a perfect design. English, for example, is renowned for the irrationality of its past tense verbs. Native speakers may be blithely unaware of the chaos that reigns in the English verbal system, not so anyone who has had to learn it at school. Here is a rhyme I wrote in memory of my frustrations:

The teacher claimed it was so plain,
I only had to use my brain.
She said the past of throw was threw,
The past of grow – of course – was grew,
So flew must be the past of fly,
And now, my boy, your turn to try.

But when I trew,
I had no clue,
If mow was mews
Like know and knew.
(Or is it knowed
Like snow and snowed?)

The teacher frowned at me and said
The past of feed was – plainly – fed.
Fed up, I knew then what I ned:
I took a break, and out I snoke,
She shook and quook (or quaked? or quoke?)

With raging anger out she broke:
Your ignorance you want to hide?
Tell me the past form of collide!
But how on earth should I decide
If it’s collid

(Like hide and hid),
Or else – from all that I surmose,
The past of rise was simply rose,
And that of ride was surely rode,
So of collide must be collode?

Oh damn these English verbs, I thought
The whole thing absolutely stought!
Of English I have had enough,
These verbs of yours are far too tough.

Bolt upright in my chair I sat,
And said to her ‘that’s that’ – I quat.

From Chapter 3: The Forces of Destruction

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is:
ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende,
and þy hit is on worolde aa
swa leng swa wyrse …

Beloved men, know that this is the truth:
This world is in haste, and it approaches its end,
and therefore always in the world
The longer (it is), the worse (it gets) …

Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (died 1023 AD)

The world has been hastening towards its imminent end for as long as anyone cares to remember, and language with it. Not only does language always change, but if one is to believe the authorities, it always changes for the worse. ‘Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration,’ declared Samuel Johnson in the introduction to his Dictionary of the English Language.
    The critics of the English language today are divided on the question of who is to blame for its current ills: the headline-hungry press, sound-biting politicians, or the slovenly habits of the young. But they are all united by the conviction that English is in a parlous state. What a falling-off was there, from the English of even just two generations ago, in the good old days when – as a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement recently reminisced – ‘a mistake was a mistake and not a sign of free expression’.
    That may be so, but it was not quite the opinion of the ‘authorities’ in those good old days. In 1946, for instance, George Orwell (about whom it was once said that he could not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry) wrote in the journal Horizon: ‘most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way’. A bad way compared of course to the language of previous generations, which was purer and more correct than the English of his own time. Perhaps, but had Orwell consulted his predecessors, he would have encountered different sentiments. In 1848, a century before Orwell’s article, the renowned linguist August Schleicher dismissed the English of his day as the most ‘ground-down’ of all the Germanic languages. English only showed ‘how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink’, and it was improbable that ‘from such language-ruins the whole edifice will be raised anew’. Instead, he added gloomily, the language is likely to ‘sink into mono-syllabicity’.
    Or take this chilling prediction of impending doom: ‘The greatest improprieties … are to be found among people of fashion; many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground; and if something [is] not done to stop this growing evil … English is likely to become a mere jargon.’ Everyone has read such sentiments expressed in countless letters to broadsheet editors, so there is nothing especially surprising about this particular one, except, perhaps, that it was written some threescore years and ten before Schleicher’s proclamation, in 1780, by one Thomas Sheridan (actor, advocate of correct elocution, and father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan). What Sheridan found most galling was that the decline of English was of such recent origin, since according to him, only seventy years earlier, ‘during the reign of Queen Anne [1702–14] … it is probable that English was … spoken in its highest state of perfection’.
    Really? The cognoscenti at the time would have begged to differ. Right in the middle of Queen Anne’s reign, Jonathan Swift embarked on what would go down in posterity as one of the most astoundingly bigoted rants in the distinguished history of this genre. His 1712 ‘Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue’ starts with the following fanfare: ‘I do here, in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain … that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions …’ and that’s only the beginning. So the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.


From Chapter 4:  A Reef of Dead Metaphors

In Antonio Skármeta’s Burning Patience (the novel on which the film Il Postino was based), the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda tries to explain to the young postman Mario what poetry is all about:

    ‘Metaphors, I said!’
    ‘What’s that?’
    The poet placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
    ‘To be more or less imprecise, we could say that it is a way of describing something by comparing it to something else.’
    ‘Give me an example.’
    Neruda looked at his watch and sighed.
    ‘Well, when you say the sky is weeping, what do you mean?’
    ‘That’s easy – that it’s raining.’
    ‘So, you see, that’s a metaphor.’

Mario desperately wants to become a poet himself, but he fails to come up with any metaphors of his own. So Neruda tries to give him a helping hand:

    ‘You are now going to walk along the beach to the bay and as you observe the movement of the sea, you are going to invent metaphors.’
    ‘Give me an example!’
    ‘Listen to this poem: ‘Here on the Island, the sea, so much sea. It spills over from time to time. It says yes, then no, then no. It says yes, in blue, in foam, in a gallop. It says no, then no. It cannot be still. My name is sea, it repeats, striking a stone but not convincing it. Then with the seven green tongues, of seven green tigers, over seven green seas, it caresses it, kisses it, wets it, and pounds on its chest, repeating its own name.’’
    He paused with an air of satisfaction.
    ‘What do you think?’
    ‘It’s weird.’
    ‘Weird? You certainly are a severe critic.’
    ‘No, Sir. The poem wasn’t weird. What was weird was the way I felt when you recited it … How can I explain it to you? When you recited that poem, the words went from over there to over here.’
    ‘Like the sea, then!’
    ‘Yes, they moved just like the sea.’
    ‘That’s the rhythm.’
    ‘And I felt weird because with all the movement, I got dizzy.’
    ‘You got dizzy?’
    ‘Of course, I was like a boat tossing upon your words.’
    The poet’s eyelids rose slowly.
    ‘Like a boat tossing upon my words.’
    ‘You know what you just did, Mario?’
    ‘No, what?’
    ‘You invented a metaphor.’

Skármeta here portrays the conventional image of metaphor as the ‘language of poetry’, the summit of the poetic imagination. On a flight of inspiration, the poet carries a concept away from its natural environment into an entirely different realm. Mario’s chance metaphor, which links the unrelated worlds of words and the sea, may not be the most striking of poetic images, but in the hands of more inspired poets the impact of uprooting a concept from its natural environment can be arrestingly evocative – just think of Yeats’s closing lines from his poem ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’: ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
    As the quintessence of poetic genius, metaphor may at first seem entirely irrelevant to the history of ordinary day-to-day language. For what could this elixir of artistic inspiration possibly have to do with the evolution of mundane communication? But in fact there is also an entirely different side to metaphor, far-flung from the poetic imagination.  Removal vans in Athens, like the one in the picture below, don’t bear the word ΜΕΤΑΦΟΡΕΣ (METAFORES) because they are advertising courses in creative writing. The reason is much more prosaic, and is simply that meta-phora is Greek for ‘carry across’ (meta= ‘across’, phor= ‘carry’). Or to use the Latin equivalent, meta-phor just means trans-fer.

And one certainly does not have to be an aspiring poet in order to transfer concepts from one linguistic domain to another. Even in the most commonplace discourse, it is hardly possible to venture a few steps without treading on dozens of metaphors. For metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind. Far from being a rare spark of poetic genius, the marvellous gift of a precious few, metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us. As will soon become apparent, we use metaphors not because of any literary leanings or artistic ambitions, but quite simply because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction.


From Chapter 6:  Craving for Order

(The chapter contains a short introduction to Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria):

… the oldest known member of the Semitic language family, Akkadian, is attested from around 2500 BC, and is thus one of the earliest written languages of all. (Only Sumerian and Ancient Egyptian can beat that record.) Akkadian was spoken in Mesopotamia, the land ‘between the rivers’, the Euphrates and the Tigris, in an area roughly corresponding to today’s Iraq. The name of the language derives from the city of Akkade, founded in the twenty-third century BC as the imperial capital of the first ‘world conqueror’, King Sargon. Later on, after 2000 BC, Akkadian diverged into two main varieties, Babylonian in the south of Mesopotamia and Assyrian in the north, both of which were to become the languages of large and powerful empires. Speakers of Akkadian (both Babylonian and Assyrian) dominated the political and cultural horizon of the Ancient Near East up until the sixth century BC. Their political star may have waxed and waned, but for a good part of 2,000 years, Mesopotamian emperors, from Sargon in the third millennium BC to Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar in the first, would lay claim to the title ‘King of the Universe’, ruling over the ‘the four corners (of the earth)’. More stable than the power of the sword, however, was the cultural hegemony of Mesopotamia over the whole region. The Akkadian language shaped the dominant canon for much of the Near East in religion, the arts, science and law, and was used as a lingua franca, the means of diplomatic correspondence. Petty governors of provincial Canaanite outposts, mighty Anatolian kings, and even Egyptian Pharaohs wrote to one another in Akkadian. Languages across the Near East also borrowed many scientific and cultural terms from Akkadian, a few of which may even be recognized by English speakers today. The Jewish expression mazel tov ‘good luck’, for example, is based on the Hebrew word mazal ‘luck’, which was borrowed from the Akkadian astrological term mazzaltu ‘position (of a star)’. But after nearly 2,000 years of cultural supremacy, the political demise of Assyria and Babylon in the sixth century BC ushered in an age of rapid decline, and within a few centuries both the Akkadian language and its writing system fell into utter oblivion. Hundreds of thousands of clay tablets, the product of 2,000 years of civilization, lay forgotten in the desert sands for two more millennia, to be rediscovered and deciphered only in the nineteenth century. Since then, an almost unbelievable wealth of texts has been recovered from the soil of Iraq and neighbouring countries and has opened up a unique perspective on one of history’s greatest civilizations. The texts encompass almost every imaginable genre, from poetry to legal documents, not to mention religious incantations, histories, royal inscriptions of heroic deeds, diplomatic correspondence, monolingual and multilingual dictionaries, mathematical and astronomical texts, medical treatises, and a seemingly endless quantity of administrative documents. One of the most fascinating genres, however, is that of ordinary private letters dealing with quotidian subjects, from commercial haggling to domestic disputes. Here, as one example, is perhaps the first ever recorded endeavour to calm family tensions. This short missive was written in the twenty-third century BC, and shows that on some issues, little has changed in more than 4,000 years:




   enma Babi ana Šārtim


   ana mīnim atti u Ibbi-ilum

   in bītim tasa’’alā

   ištēniš šibā

   šamnam šūbilim



This is what Babi says to Shartum:

I’m very worried. 

Why do you and Ibbi-ilum

quarrel at home?

Live with one other! 

Send me sesame oil! 


Forked tongues

Deborah Cameron on Guy Deutscher’s account of linguistic evolution, The Unfolding of Language

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  • The Unfolding of Language by Guy DeutscherBuy The Unfolding of Language at the Guardian bookshop 

    The Unfolding of Language
    by Guy Deutscher
    360pp, William Heinemann, £20

    “Language seems so skilfully crafted,” writes Guy Deutscher, “that it appears to be the work of a master architect – and yet its complex structure must somehow have arisen of its own accord.” Nobody ever invented human language: its structures are not the result of any purposeful design. The aim of this book is to explain how, in the absence of any architect or plan, complex linguistic systems develop. 

    Although there is no master plan driving the process, it is clear that language change is a universal phenomenon, and patterned rather than random: certain kinds of changes recur in widely separated languages. Deutscher seeks to explain the underlying principles at work here, drawing on evidence from both real and reconstructed “proto” languages. He also seeks to show how those principles could account for a much earlier development, one linguists can only speculate about, since if it happened it took place so far back in prehistory as to be beyond reconstruction – the formation of human languages as we know them from the simpler systems that were their hypothetical precursors. 

    Deutscher imagines what he dubs a “Me Tarzan” stage of linguistic evolution, when humans communicated using a small number of words and some basic rules for ordering them, and applies what we know about language change to explain how such a “primitive” system might have acquired the complexity that is evident in even the oldest languages known to scholarship. 

    In fact, the most ancient languages for which we have records often look more grammatically complex than their modern descendants: think of Latin, with its profusion of case endings, compared with modern Italian or French. This observation led earlier scholars to argue that language change was essentially degeneration. August Schleicher declared in 1850: “The further back we can follow a language, the more perfect we find it … languages as such go backwards.” But more recent scholarship has rejected this view on the grounds that decay and renewal, creation and destruction, are two sides of a single coin: the same mechanisms are responsible for both. 

    Case endings, for instance, may be lost because of the tendency of speakers to follow an “economy” or “least effort” principle, lopping off final syllables or pronouncing them so indistinctly as to obscure whatever grammatical information they contain. In saving themselves the effort of pronouncing their endings clearly, speakers effectively destroy the case system. But as Deutscher explains, it was the same kind of laziness that created case endings in the first place. These endings were originally separate words, called postpositions (like prepositions, but placed after rather than before nouns). Speakers following the “least effort” principle simply fused postpositions with their preceding nouns, reducing two words (like “house to”) to one (“house [dative]”). 

    But if the principle of least effort were all there was to language change, we would presumably end up communicating in monosyllabic grunts. The reason this doesn’t happen is that there are countervailing tendencies, among them what Deutscher calls the principle of expressiveness, the drive to extend a language’s communicative range. One typical manifestation of this is the metaphorical use of concrete terms in more abstract senses. For instance, everyday discourse is full of body-part terms applied to concepts other than the body itself: we meet the “head of department”, get to the “heart of the matter” and travel to the “back of beyond”. 

    Expressiveness also lies behind the tendency to elaborate commonplace words and phrases in a bid to give them emphasis or freshness. Then, as the elaborated forms themselves become commonplace, the whole cycle begins again. Deutscher gives the example of the French word “aujourd’hui” (“today”). “Hui” is a reduced form of the Latin word “hodie”, itself reduced from “hoc die”, “this day”. So “aujourd’hui” literally means “on the day of this day”. But just as “hui” seemed insufficiently expressive to their ancestors, who added “au jour de”, so present-day French speakers, unaware of its history, have become dissatisfied with the fused form “aujourd’hui”. In colloquial speech people have started saying “au jour d’aujourd’- hui” – “on the day of on the day of this day”. 

    The other principle Deutscher discusses is analogy, a tendency to create order by tidying up exceptions, anomalies and irregularities. In English, for instance, there are two kinds of verbs: “strong” ones which make past tenses by changing the vowel (“drink/drank”) and “weak” ones which mark past tenses with the ending -ed. Since in modern English the weak type is commoner, it is not unusual for speakers to start putting weak past tense endings on historically strong verbs – saying “dreamed” instead of “dreamt”, for instance. But the opposite may also happen: an example is the weak verb “dive”, which has recently developed a strong past tense form, “dove”, presumably on the analogy of “drive/drove”. This illustrates the point that there is no overall design driving language change. 

    The subject matter of Deutscher’s book is well chosen to engage a non-specialist audience, and his presentation is generally lucid. I was slightly disappointed by certain omissions: he does not discuss the role of social motivations in advancing or inhibiting change, nor – except in a footnote disputing their relevance – the auxiliary languages, jargons and pidgins, whose development might offer concrete historical evidence about the growth of grammatical complexity. 

    But my real reservations are more about manner than matter. A popular book on an academic subject must speak to the lay reader, but without talking down: Deutscher seems to find this a struggle. In his efforts to be entertaining he sometimes comes across as patronising. When he explains the principle of economy – scarcely a concept you need a degree in linguistics to grasp – by inventing little fables about the lazy inhabitants of “Idleford” and “Santa Siesta”, the effect is laboured. I was also irritated by the prefatory warnings with which he flags certain topics as particularly demanding. We are advised that the Semitic verb “does not make for light bedtime reading”, and that a discussion of the origins of syntax will be taxing enough to require special preparation: “So make yourself a strong cup of coffee, and read on.” 

    The Unfolding of Language would be a much better book without these arch distractions; but for readers who want to know what modern scholarship has to say about the development of language, it is still an informative and thought-provoking guide. 

    · Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication at Oxford University. To order The Unfolding of Language for £18 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.


    Book overview

    Blending the spirit of Eats, Shoots & Leaves with the science of The Language Instinct, an original inquiry into the development of that most essential-and mysterious-of human creations: Language

    Language is mankind’s greatest invention-except, of course, that it was never invented.” So begins linguist Guy Deutscher’s enthralling investigation into the genesis and evolution of language. If we started off with rudimentary utterances on the level of “man throw spear,” how did we end up with sophisticated grammars, enormous vocabularies, and intricately nuanced degrees of meaning?

    Drawing on recent groundbreaking discoveries in modern linguistics, Deutscher exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication, giving us fresh insight into how language emerges, evolves, and decays. He traces the evolution of linguistic complexity from an early “Me Tarzan” stage to such elaborate single-word constructions as the Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz (“you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town dweller”). Arguing that destruction and creation in language are intimately entwined, Deutscher shows how these processes are continuously in operation, generating new words, new structures, and new meanings.

    As entertaining as it is erudite, The Unfolding of Language moves nimbly from ancient Babylonian to American idiom, from the central role of metaphor to the staggering triumph of design that is the Semitic verb, to tell the dramatic story and explain the genius behind a uniquely human faculty.
    Born in Israel in 1969, Guy Deutscher studied mathematics and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Cambridge, where he became a research fellow in 1998. A widely acclaimed scholar of ancient Semitic languages, Deutscher is at the University of Leiden in Holland. Coming in paperback in May 2006 “Language is mankind’s greatest invention—except, of course, that it was never invented.” So begins linguist Guy Deutscher’s enthralling investigation into the genesis and evolution of language. If we started off with rudimentary utterances on the level of “man throw spear,” how did we end up with sophisticated grammars, enormous vocabularies, and intricately nuanced degrees of meaning? Drawing on recent groundbreaking discoveries in modern linguistics, Deutscher exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication, giving us fresh insight into how language emerges, evolves, and decays. He traces the evolution of linguistic complexity from an early “Me Tarzan” stage to such elaborate single-word constructions as the Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz (“you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town dweller”). Arguing that destruction and creation in language are intimately entwined, Deutscher shows how these processes are continuously in operation, generating new words, new structures, and new meanings. “A lively and thought-provoking exploration of why language change appears to be haphazard yet is fundamentally orderly. Exciting, witty, and a masterpiece of contemporary scholarship.”—Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and English, Stanford University “Any curious reader . . . will find something worth knowing in The Unfolding of Language.”—Jan Freeman, The Boston Globe
    “A lively and thought-provoking exploration of why language change appears to be haphazard yet is fundamentally orderly. Exciting, witty, and a masterpiece of contemporary scholarship.”—Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and English, Stanford University “At last, an entertaining and readable book that presents the most current views on language and its evolution.”—Joan Bybee, Professor of Linguistics, University of New Mexico
    “Thoroughly enjoyable . . . Deutscher is an erudite and entertaining guide through the paradoxes and complexities of language evolution.”—Gene Gragg, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, University of Chicago
    “Languages are constantly changing—being endlessly reinvented and reworked by the people who use them. In his compelling new book, The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher argues that the same simple processes that underlie the rich and dynamic variety of modern human languages can also explain the initial emergence of complex language from its primitive beginnings. Deutscher illuminates his absorbing analysis of humanity’s ‘greatest invention’ with a detailed investigation of what he identifies as the three main forces of change: economy, expressiveness and analogy. The majority of the book consists of a captivating journey through linguistic history, as Deutscher illustrates these simple forces of change with numerous interesting examples from many different languages, both ancient and modern, familiar and exotic. In doing so, he explains such divergent linguistic phenomena as the development of case endings, how prepositions are created from words for parts of the body and, most impressively, the gradual evolution of the spectacular complexity of the Semitic verbal system. The Unfolding of Language is a stimulating, informative and immensely readable account of language change and evolution, which will appeal both to the professional linguist and to those interested in understanding more about why language is the way it is. Although he occasionally strays into a self-consciously erudite style of humor, Deutscher’s writing is admirably accessible, and his enthusiasm for his subject is unmistakable and infectious. He has produced a fascinating book, which argues lucidly and persuasively that we can explain the remote history of language by understanding its recent past and its ongoing evolution.”—Andrew D. M. Smith, American Scientist
    The Unfolding of Language provides a thoroughly readable, popular-science style discussion of the evolution of language. Deutscher’s central thesis is that the same processes of destruction and creation which account for attested change in language can also provide an explanation for the origins of linguistic structure . . . This is an extremely enjoyable book to read . . . It is not just an entertaining read, however, tackling as it does some complex subject matter in a manner which is always enthusiastic, always engaging, and ultimately, always understandable. The topics covered in chapters 1-5 may be fairly standard historical linguistics fare, but the wit and clarity of their exposition make this book worth a look for these alone . . . The chapters ‘This Marvellous Invention’ and ‘The Unfolding of Language’, where Deutscher tackles the origins of linguistic structure, make the book. These chapters broaden the scope of the book beyond the traditional confines of historical linguistics to deal with a question which will, I imagine, excite the imaginations of a wide readership . . . An excellent book.”—Kenny Smith, Linguist List
    “Learning about the forces and processes involved in language evolution can be spine-tingling, and Deutscher packs The Unfolding of Language with thrill-rides such as a description of how the wearing away of complex forms (e.g., case endings in English) leads ultimately to new, if different, complexity; an explanation of why the ability to employ metaphor was essential to the development of language; a history lesson on how every generation—going back thousand


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