Review: The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher
6: The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher
(began: 12 Jan 2012; completed: 5 Feb 2012)
Non-fiction; linguistics (historical/evolutionary); pop-science
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.