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Oral History

Andrew Smith

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention. Guy Deutscher. x + 358 pp. Metropolitan Books, 2005. $26.

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, a specialist in ancient Semitic languages and a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, notes that people have always complained about the state of their language, bemoaning its misuse (departures from "proper" language) and its degeneration from a once-glorious past into an error-ridden, chaotic mess. Even Cicero grumbled that the Latin of his time had deteriorated from that of the previous century. Deutscher explains that such complaints are depressingly inevitable, because "decay . . . is the aspect of change that is by far the most easily observable." But he also shows that, beneath the surface, the linguistic forces that conspire to erode language are closely related to the more elusive, but just as ineluctable, forces of renewal and reconstruction.

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 first of these, economy, occurs because speakers are intrinsically lazy and therefore seldom inclined to expend more effort in pronunciation than is absolutely necessary for the listener to understand their meaning. Economy in pronunciation leads naturally to sounds weakening, merging into one another and being eroded in predictable ways, sometimes eventually disappearing altogether.

Expressiveness, meanwhile, drives us to use increasingly extravagant words to give extra force to our utterances. Repetition of forceful expressions, however, leads inevitably to a kind of linguistic inflation, where the impact of the words is gradually diminished, and their meaning is consequently eroded and ultimately lost.

The third force, analogy, stems from the fact that those learning a language need to impose structure on it—to identify patterns in it so as to avoid being overwhelmed with linguistic information. Once identified, however, such patterns tend to be extended beyond their original use, culminating in the innovation of new linguistic forms and constructions.

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.

Having guided us expertly through these processes of change and regeneration, in the final chapter Deutscher moves on to a detailed exploration of his uniformitarian thesis: that the now-familiar forces of present-day language change can also account for the origins of complex linguistic structures. He explains how, starting with a simple ancestral proto-language containing only words for concrete things, words for simple actions, and "this" and "that," and assuming only simple ordering conventions such as reporting things in the order they happened, all manner of linguistic paraphernalia—including pronouns, quantifiers, tenses, gender systems and subordinate clauses—can emerge through these same simple processes of economy, expressiveness and analogy.

The book’s presentation of the methods and significant discoveries of historical linguists is enthusiastic and accomplished. Deutscher focuses keenly on the important issues and never overwhelms the reader with technicalities. He rightly draws attention, for instance, to the pervasiveness of metaphor and to its vital importance in language change, both as a result of our desire for greater expressiveness and as a source of expressions that refer to abstract concepts. He recognizes the powerful, inventive and order-imposing force of analogy. However, he tends to underplay the very significant pressures working to limit the invention of new forms of expression.

What are these pressures? Let me explain. Speakers can, in principle, invent and produce an endless variety of potential utterances, but only those whose meanings can be successfully understood by listeners (and learned by children) stand any chance of being used by others in the future and of becoming established in the language. New metaphors, therefore, must not be too obscure and cannot be created randomly but must instead be built on existing linguistic patterns. These patterns must be extended systematically and relatively predictably, so that the hearer will still be able to work out the appropriate meaning from the linguistic context. The speaker’s desire for expressiveness, therefore, is always restrained by the hearer’s need to be able to reconstruct the meaning.

Deutscher pays too little attention to this limitation, in my view. He is, nonetheless, properly careful to set out the coherent theoretical basis for his uniformitarian account of the origin of linguistic structure. He rejects the temptation to stretch his theory further back than it will comfortably go, and he renders his account all the more convincing by insisting on a foundation of empirically verifiable data. Surprisingly, however, he appears reluctant to enter the lively debate about the innateness of language and instead leaves the reader to draw the obvious conclusion: If, as he so vividly and cogently describes, known processes of cultural evolution can in themselves give rise to complex linguistic structures, then there is surely no requirement for such structures to be explicitly hard-wired into the human brain.

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.

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