Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE UNFOLDING OF LANGUAGE by Guy Deutscher Kirkus Star


An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention

by Guy Deutscher

Pub Date: May 6th, 2005
ISBN: 0-8050-7907-6
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

The story of language from a multilingual perspective.

Deutscher (Linguistics/Univ. of Leiden) takes particular effort to trace the way languages evolved into and from the complex structures we see in the Latin noun declensions or the Semitic verb system, to cite two examples. While many self-anointed experts decry the decay of language from a more perfect state, Deutscher argues that the same mechanisms work to build and to destroy linguistic structures. Prime among them are economy, novelty and analogy. Economy (more accurately, laziness) leads to dropping syllables or slurring vowels to make pronunciation easier. For example, the French word for the month of August, Août (pronounced “oo”) began as “Augustus,” after the Roman emperor. Novelty often takes the form of metaphor, seeking new ways to express the abstract: “thrilled” originally meant “pierced,” as by a spear—a sensation somewhat sharper than what is usually referred to by this word. And analogy leads us to apply known rules to unfamiliar situations, as when a young child says “foots” or “drinked.” 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.

Witty, thought-provoking, constantly surprising.