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The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language (2005)

by Guy Deutscher

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7552412,297 (4.18)55
  1. 20
    The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter (keristars)
    keristars: Great companion books - two perspectives of virtually the same thing. McWhorter's looks more at the sheer variety (or lack thereof) of languages, while Deutscher's looks at the complexity within a single language.
  2. 00
    The Seeds of Speech by Jean Aitchison (SomeGuyInVirginia)

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» See also 55 mentions

English (21)  German (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (24)
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
This is a good book and the German translation is very well done. But after a while the details end up being more than I really eant to know. ( )
  MarthaJeanne | Apr 5, 2014 |

I love reading about linguistics - it's one of those intellectual paths not taken for me, but as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by the relationships between words and especially words and grammar in different languages. Here, Deutscher runs through the basics about where we think languages have come from and how words and sentences are constructed - though even there there is some new information for me, I had not realised the importance of the 1927 discovery of Hittite with respect to Saussure's 1878 theory of Indo-European pharyngeals - and then turns his attention to how grammar changes over time.

Deutscher's approach to linguistic change was all new to me and quite fascinating. It is a given that people writing about their own language at every point of recorded history bemoan the fact that in modern days it's not spoken or written as well as it used to be; also linguistic reconstructions of extinct languages always seem to generate the impression that they were better ordered and more complex than their descendants today. Yet we also see new linguistic structures developing at the same time - he looks for instance at the future tense in French, at the use of "gonna" and "got" in English, and in considerable depth at the historical development of tense markers in Semitic verbs - mainly Arabic, but also Hebrew which has changed a lot in only the last century. In the end he makes a very good case that there is basically an equilibrium between language speakers unconsciously eroding old grammatical structures out of sheer laziness, but then being compelled to invent new elements to cover nuances of meaning that are needed - and these new elements emerge only gradually, so that "going to" shifts quite imperceptibly from only indicating movement to becoming an equivalent marker for "shall/will". ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Mar 9, 2014 |
For once the blurb quotes are real: this book WILL stretch your mind. A great overview of how language evolved, and is still evolving. Its examples span the globe, with prominent places for Indo-European, Semitic and Turkish. This is the best book on language that I've read in a long time; it answered many questions that I've been having for a long time, and provided just as many unexpected additional insights. The writing is accessible and clear, with just enough summarising to ensure that the reader takes all its points in. Language aficionados will love this. ( )
  fist | Dec 23, 2012 |
Utterly fascinating. Deutscher contemplates how such complex grammatical structures as the Semitic verb could have arisen, why irregularities seem to keep cropping up, and what the grand trajectory of language looks like. The tone of this book is light and engaging.
1 vote ftong | May 18, 2012 |
Guy Deutscher's the Unfolding of Language is an attempt to show how language can develop into a complex structure of grammar and morphology from a more-or-less simple Thing-word + Action-word beginning (or, as Deutscher refers to it in the book, from the "me Tarzan" stage). While not comprehensive of all possible variations in language or even all grammatical functions or types of sentences, the book does provide a template for how other complexities might develop beyond what Deutscher covers. As he says in the "small print" before really getting into this template, "the aim is only to suggest that it is possible, in principle, to understand how the whole edifice of complex grammar could have developed from a complex of much simpler principles. [...] The selection here must be highly selective, since it is impossible within one chapter to consider every single feature of even one language, let alone all languages" (p 224).

The book is arranged in 7 chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue. Each of the first 6 chapters focusses on a single concept and how that idea works with language. Some of the earliest sections cover more-or-less basic ideas that are found in lots of discussion of language evolution, such as erosion and back-formation. Chapter 4, "Metaphors", was one of the more interesting sections to me, as it discusses how fairly solid and "real" Thing-words and Action-words (Deutscher attempts to avoid using "noun" and "verb" when discussing roots) can grow to encompass abstract ideas such as prepositions. I suppose this is kind of obvious, but Deutscher approached it in a novel way for me, which provided words and clarity to concepts I had previously only vaguely recognized. These first chapters also look at how new words or grammatical structures form, specifically via Latin and French verb-forms, and the desire for patterns in language that might not actually exist, such as in Semitic verb templates, or even more familiar English plurals - "cherry" from the singular "cherise" or "pea" from "pease".

The final chapter of the book uses the concepts as described previously to show how a simple "me Tarzan" story with only Things and Actions ("Girl fruit pick     mammoth see     turn") can become a much more "natural" modern story ("A girl who was picking fruit one day suddenly heard some movement behind her. She turned around and saw a huge mammoth..."). While new concepts are broached (especially relative clauses, but also reflexive pronouns and sentence word order, amongst others), each has a grounding in one of the previous chapters. On the whole, Deutscher makes it very easy to follow how languages change.

While I found The Unfolding of Language to be interesting and very worth my time reading, I was a bit frustrated at the lack of references to the end notes within the text. It is a pop-linguistics book, so notations could be distracting to the reader, and footnotes might make it seem too academic, but there were many places where I wanted to read more, and had to flip back and forth to see if there was a note with citations - sometimes there was, and sometimes not. I was also a bit dismayed that Deutscher insisted in the introduction that he would not cover the debate about the innateness of language (he instead has a note on page 310 with further reading on the matter), yet does refer off-hand from time to time to the "natural" way of language. He specifically points to the "me first" concept when discussing sentence word-order, and states that it is perfectly natural for us to use "me" before anything else when speaking. While I can see this as being true, I was rather hoping that he would have provided citations to a study so that I could learn more about this, yet he doesn't. I think it is a very fascinating field of study, that of how culture and language influence how one thinks and perceives. (I have since learned that Deutscher tends to fall on the "innate" side of the argument, rather than the side that says culture/language is very influential, which is where I stand.)

I really find that The Unfolding of Language is a good companion to John McWhorter's The Power of Babel. While Deutscher's book looks at the complexities of grammar and morphology (with a focus on English and the languages that heavily influenced English, save for the chapter on Semitic verb templates), McWhorter's is more about the sheer variety of languages and how they can diverge or fall together (such as multiple languages in Africa reducing complexities and becoming Swahili as an all-purpose trading language, which then became a first-language in itself). These two books are pretty much on the same topic, but with two different perspectives. Thus, some of the items repeat (such as explanations about erosion and back-formation, or discussions of the natural patterns of languages simplifying and becoming more complex, or even why there seems to be less change in modern languages than in the past and why so many are dying out completely).

I received The Unfolding of Language via the SantaThing program in 2010 and am very grateful that I had a Secret Santa who could pick out an excellent evolutionary linguistics book for me. ( )
5 vote keristars | Feb 6, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Guy Deutscherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fyfe, LisaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pfeiffer, MartinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Janie

maṣṣar šulmim u balāṭim ina rēšiki ay ipparku
First words
This Marvellous Invention'
Of all mankind's manifold creations, language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our matreial 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.
A Castle in the AirC'est un langage estrange que le Basque
On dit qu'ils s'entendent, je n'en croy rien.

Basque is really a strange language . . .
It is said they understand one another,
but I don't believe any of it.

         Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609)

Everyone knows that the words of a language, from its aardvarks to its zucchini, lend meaning to our utterances, and allow us to understand one another. And it is because foreign languages use so many strange words that we cannot understand them without years of labour. Even Joseph Scaliger, the most erudite scholar of his day, a polyglot not only fluent in Latin, Greek and most of the modern languages of Europe, but also self-taught in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Persian, still had to give up on Basque, because it used completely different words for absolutely everything. The effort of memorizing many thousands of words so overwhelms our perception of what language learning is all about that it may easily lead to the impressions that knowing a language just comes down to knowing its words. Surely, if one could only recognize the meaning of each word, all one would need to do is add all these meanings up somehow, in order to grasp the sense of a whole sentence. But if this is so, and language ultimately amounts to just words, then isn't the quest for the origin of structure merely an intellectual wild goose chase?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805080120, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:27 -0400)

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The elusive forces of creation at work in human communication are exposed in an investigation into how the destruction and creation in language are intimately entwined and how these processes are continuously in operation, generating new words, structures, and meanings.… (more)

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