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The Unfolding of Language

An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention

Guy Deutscher

Holt Paperbacks

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ISBN10: 0805080120
ISBN13: 9780805080124

Trade Paperback

368 Pages


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"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 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.


Praise for The Unfolding of Language

"The book's most useful information is in the chapters defending the recent progress of language. A number of people, including linguists, believe that language is slowly degrading, falling into less and less complicated patterns. Deutscher argues forcefully and well against this theory of language entropy, not the least because, as he points out, this theory is at least two thousand years old. Next-best are the appendices, five of them, each discusses some element he brought up earlier in the book but didn't want to veer aside to tackle directly. He's particularly good in the chapters where he's able to reference the Semitic verb and noun systems, which, while rather complicated, are his specialty . . . Deutscher is . . . entertaining and accessible, working humour into his examples and an obvious love of language into every paragraph. This isn't just another pop book on language, though. He has copious endnotes from some leading publications and does an excellent job of bringing together a number of ideas into one book without creating confusion. Much of this is thanks to the copious graphs, lists, charts and illustrations. Each serves a purpose: either introducing a new point or helping to explain one already made . . . [Deutscher is] excellent at introducing readers to new ideas and would serve well in the library of the armchair linguist or on the desktop of someone teaching undergraduate courses on language . . . [Deutscher is] skilled enough at [his] craft that [he] often sum[s] up a complex idea in a pithy way that will have you reaching for the highlighter."—Academia

"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

"[An] engaging . . . very different, big-picture look at language history."—Chicago Tribune

"Any curious reader . . . will find something worth knowing in The Unfolding of Language."—Jan Freeman, The Boston Globe

"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 . . . 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 thousands of years!—believes that its language, as 'now' spoken, is but a crude remnant of its recent, golden age. Probably the most electrifying chapter . . . concerns the development of the Semitic verb system. Such an elegant, intricate and consummately logical structure, it was long thought, could only have been a deliberate, conscious invention (call it 'intelligent design,' if you're looking to pick a fight), as no such structure could possibly have emerged through evolution. But Deutscher takes us through a series of hypothetical steps that demonstrate just how such a structure could, and likely, did develop. When the last piece falls into place, the feeling is akin to the jolt of pleasure one gets from comprehending, in an instant and at last, the steps involved in proving congruency in two triangles."— Arthur Salm, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Unfolding is the kind of book that brings new order to the world, making connections leap out at you wherever you look, and it's exciting that Deutscher has made the fruits of linguistics so readily available . . . Deutscher, with his always slightly amused tone, manages to turn this ambitiously comprehensive, globe-trotting book—complete with a bonus history of the linguistics discipline itself—into a great layman's read without sacrificing the integrity of the material, packing the juiciest stuff into the front and preserving the rest for the truly hooked in the appendices in the back. For anyone who's ever wondered how we got from Shakespeare's English to ours, Unfolding will more than satisfy."—Nora Ankrum, Austin Chronicle

"Deutscher smoothly combines a historical survey of linguistics with fascinating examples from both ancient and modern languages, showing family relationships between such words as 'have' and 'capture.' The Semitic verb system uses unpronounceable triplets of consonants as its roots, fleshing them out with elaborate matrices of vowels to give the various spoken forms. Irregularities in this astonishingly complex system help us understand how it must have grown from a primitive system of roots modified by auxiliaries, much in the way that verb systems in other languages are believed to have evolved. Perhaps the most remarkable conclusion is that even the most elaborate languages are the product not of a single brilliant inventor, but of thousands of ordinary people, creating—almost by accident—one of the most profound and beautiful structures humanity has created. [This book is] witty, thought-provoking, and constantly surprising."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"The linguistic chain that connects the boasts of an ancient Sumerian monarch to the jests of Groucho Marx is long and convoluted, but Deutscher retraces it, fascinating link by fascinating link, identifying the dynamic processes that have continuously transformed and renewed the world's diverse languages. Even when delving deeply into ancient manuscripts and temple engravings, Deutscher interprets every linguistic mutation as the consequence of evolutionary forces still observable in today's living languages. Readers see in linguistic fossils from Mesopotamia traces of the same conversion of living metaphor into conceptual lattice still taking place in modern English, German, and Indonesian. What Deutscher demonstrates most clearly is how linguistic structures that look like the product of deliberate artifice can emerge from entirely natural processes . . . This introduction to fundamental linguistic principles opens to nonspecialists a rich theoretical vista."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"Deutscher here takes the reader on a journey through the rich history of language, offering insight into our primary mode of communication as he discusses such topics as word order, shifting meaning, and the permanence of spelling (but not pronunciation) in English. He uses several languages and language families to elucidate his points, relying on their similarities and differences to clarify what would otherwise be a significantly more complex topic; his painstaking research is evident in the notes, glossary, and references."—Library Journal

"Using language himself in a lively and engaging way, Deutscher, an expert in Semitic languages at the University of Leiden in Holland, identifies two principles—the desire to create order out of chaotic reality, and the urge to vary the sounds of words and their meanings—providing the direction by which language developed and continues to develop. Rather than search for the prehistoric moment when speech originated, Deutscher says we can most profitably understand the phenomenon by taking the present as the key to the past. Using a wide array of examples, he delves into the back-formation of words (making a noun into a verb), the evolution of relative clauses from simple pointing words (that, this), and the turning of objects into nouns . . . Deutscher's entertaining writing and his knack for telling a good tale about how words develop offer a delightful and charming story of language."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


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How do languages evolve? Why does language always change-and does it decline or does it progress? How did language ever become so complex? In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher responds to the big questions with big answers, along the...

About the author

Guy Deutscher

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.

Guy Deutscher

Official Links

Guy Deutscher at the New York Times