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An interview with Guy Deutscher

Amos Esty

"The English of today is not what it used to be," says linguist Guy Deutscher, "but then again, it never was." For thousands of years, critics have decried the corruption of language, yet somehow we've managed to continue communicating. According to Deutscher, who is a professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and a specialist in the field of ancient Semitic languages, the constant evolution of language is perfectly natural. In his new book, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, Deutscher explains how languages change and why we don't need to worry that technology, the media or even teenagers will do irreparable damage to our ability to converse.

American Scientist assistant book review editor Amos Esty interviewed Deutscher by e-mail in October 2005.

You seem very familiar with a number of languages. How many do you speak? Are any particularly appealing to you for any reason?

Guy DeutscherClick to Enlarge Image

This is a question linguists usually dread, because it's so difficult to give a simple answer for it. Does "speaking a language" mean being able to order a coffee, to argue about metaphysics, or to pass as a native? If you mean more than just ordering a coffee, then the modern languages I could speak at one time or other would add up to eight (but only four or five at any given time, as those I haven't used for a few years quickly rust). If you mean passing as a native, then I had better say I don't speak even a single language—my English doesn't sound native, and when I go back to Israel, where I grew up, people ask me where I'm from and claim I now have a foreign accent in Hebrew, my mother tongue.

Another problem in drawing up a list of languages I speak is that I happen to specialize in languages that haven't been spoken for thousands of years, such as Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon and Assyria. So there isn't much opportunity to practice one's small talk. Still, if you transported me to ancient Babylon 4,000 years ago, I might not be able to order a coffee, but I would have no problems ordering a beer.

I like different things about different languages. The sounds I love most are of Norwegian, because it has such a beautiful intonation, and the poetry I love most is German. But if I had to give an overall favorite, then it would probably be Sumerian, the language of the people who invented writing some 5,000 years ago in what today is southern Iraq. Sumerian is not related to any other language we know (living or dead), and it's weird—one of those languages where one word can express a whole sentence. I sometimes feel that every Sumerian speaker had to be a mathematics genius in order to produce those extremely complex constructions. But it's precisely this strangeness, together with their amazing culture, which makes Sumerian so attractive. 

It was interesting to read that people have been lamenting the decay of languages for centuries. But does that mean that we don't need to worry about the way teenagers (to take one much-maligned group as an example) mangle proper English? Is language ever really in danger of too much decay?

People have been complaining about decay for millennia, actually, not just centuries. Cicero wasn't really happy with the Latin of his day, and there was even an Egyptian poet some 4,000 years ago who grumbled that things are not what they used to be. One of the people I quote in the book is the Viennese critic Hans Weigel, who wrote that "every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before"—that rather sums it up, I think. The manglings of today will seem like perfectly respectable English in 50 years' time, just as today's "proper English" would have seemed intolerable to previous generations. Jonathan Swift, for example, complained in 1712 that to pronounce verbs like "disturbed" as disturb'd rather than the correct disturbèd was nothing less than a "lapse into the Barbarity of those Northern Nations from whom we are descended." But today you would have to be pretty disturbed to say disturbèd.

So unless you really want to believe that every generation in the past was wrong to accuse their teenagers of corrupting language, but that we happen to be right in saying the same thing about ours, then you should stop worrying. It's no coincidence that Jared Diamond's latest book, Collapse, does not have a chapter on a society which became extinct because its members woke up one day and discovered they couldn't communicate with one another. So while I wouldn't risk my neck predicting the human race's chances of survival, I can say with 100 percent confidence that if we go down, it won't be because our language has fallen apart.

Why do you think people get so upset about what they take to be the degradation of language?

Because language is much more than just a means of communication—it is one of the most important ways we define ourselves, and a prime mark of identity, so it's no wonder language rouses strong emotions. It's natural to feel that the norms we grew up with are correct, while any deviations from them are improper. So the condemnation of changes in language is undoubtedly a manifestation of the general harking back to bygone better days—just as people were more polite in one's youth, the weather was nicer and the apples tasted better, so was language more refined and less abused. But I don't think this is the whole story, since there is another reason why people so often get upset about language decaying, and that's because decay is indeed one very visible part of what happens in language over time. For example, it's certainly true that sounds can decay through effort-saving in pronunciation, and words can get shorter and shorter. (Just think of "disturbed," which lost a final syllable in Swift's time. And in the book, I mention a few spectacular examples, such as the Latin month Augustus, which ended up in French pronounced as a mere "oo.") The meaning of words can also be gradually eroded. People often lament that a word like "catastrophe" is no longer used only for real catastrophes but for bad concerts or non-matching clothes, and that in consequence, it loses its distinctiveness and thus its meaning. And indeed, the more often we hear a word, the less powerful the impression it makes, so the fate of words like "catastrophe" can justly be described as a decay in meaning.

But what my book argues is that this isn't such a catastrophe for language after all, because decay isn't the only thing that's going on. What people are less aware of is that alongside this decay, there are also processes of renewal and regeneration. The only thing is, these processes of creation are much more elusive, and in the book, I spend quite a few chapters trying to unearth them. Since creation in language is so difficult to spot, while decay is all too obvious, it's no wonder that people get the impression that language as a whole is being degraded.

You discuss the cycles languages go through as a result of the erosion of words and the desire to be expressive. Have you noticed any longer-term patterns in the way languages evolve? Is all this erosion and expression getting us anywhere?

This question is extremely interesting, but also extremely tough. We can say with confidence that language isn't getting any worse, but also that it's not simply getting better, in the sense of becoming a more effective tool of communication. In other words, I don't think languages are much more efficient now than they were 1,000 or 5,000 years ago. In theory at least, language should stay in a rough state of equilibrium, with the forces of erosion and the forces of creation driving it in cycles happily ever after. And yet, at least when one looks at the history of the Indo-European languages over the last few millennia, there are some suspicious signs of things moving in a certain direction. In particular, there has been a clear movement towards shorter, invariable words (rather than words with different endings that were common in ancient languages such as Latin, Greek or Sanskrit). The American linguist Edward Sapir wrote about this in 1921, and called this movement a drift which has a clear direction. He asked how come speakers know in what general direction the language is supposed to be drifting. How, for example, do speakers of modern English know that they are historically bound to drop the pronoun "whom," which is one of the last words in English that still has a case ending, but which already by Sapir's day "might do for an epitaph, but not for an eager inquiry"? This question has haunted linguists ever since, and many attempts have been made to find solutions for it. No conclusive answer has yet been given, but I talk about some of the suggested solutions at the end of the book.

A lot of people seem to complain that e-mail has recently caused language to become much more informal. What is the role of technology in the evolution of language? Given how quickly technology seems to be developing at the moment, are languages evolving more rapidly than they have in the past?

E-mails may be changing the epistolary style of English prose (and perhaps spelling conventions), but I think it's an exaggeration to call that a significant effect on language as a whole. Actually, I tend to think that the impact of technology on language is much overrated. If the pace of change in language really reflected the rate of technological advances, then we might have expected the last century to show much faster linguistic changes than any previous one, and we might have expected in the last few decades in particular to see language spiraling out of control. But that's not remotely the case. If we compare how much English has changed over the last 400 years, say, between Shakespeare's time and ours, with how much it changed in the 400 years before Shakespeare, we see that the changes between 1,200 and 1,600 were much faster and more radical than those between 1,600 and the present. So that already makes one pause for thought.

Of course, I'm not trying to say that technology has no impact at all. Clearly, new words keep emerging for new concepts and gadgets: from wheel and plough to iPod and e-mail. But beyond the addition of words here and there, I don't think technology has much deeper effect on language, unless it's the kind of technology, like writing, or radio and television, which revolutionizes our patterns of communication. But strangely enough, it's far from obvious that mass media, for instance, have increased the rate of change in language—their standardizing influence may even have decreased it. Generally, the effects of changes in patterns of communication on language is a question which has not received nearly enough serious attention. But it's something I find fascinating and plan to write about in my next book.

If languages are constantly evolving, are they really that important to cultural identity? Would France, for example, still be France if English, or another language, eventually became the dominant tongue?

I don't see a contradiction between the constant changes in language and the fact that language is perhaps the main emblem of our identity. Changes within the same language are never so quick that they impede comprehension between living generations, and written language, which tends to be much more conservative anyway, is a means of connecting to that great body of culture accumulated over centuries.

Of course, if for whatever reason people in France started speaking Chinese, say, it doesn't follow they would lose all their national characteristics and would start eating with chopsticks. (There are historical precedents, for example in Ireland, where within a relatively short time, a large percentage of the population switched from Irish to English, but the Irish did not lose their national identity and become English as a consequence.) Still, I'm sure that if you asked the French what "being French" meant to them, they would say it was more than just brie and baguette—it's also singing French lullabies and nursery rhymes, not Chinese ones, using French idioms and bon mots, telling French jokes and making French puns, reading Hugo and Maupassant (not in a Chinese translation), and so on. And it's hard to argue with that feeling.

At the end of your book, you mention that the world is constantly losing languages. Is that something we should be worried about? Or does it just mean that it's getting easier for people to communicate with one another?

Both. On the one hand, at least since the Tower of Babel, there has been a strong perception that the multiplicity of languages is a curse, a source of frustration or, worse, a cause of avoidable strife. And it would be disingenuous to deny that the world would be an easier place if we all just spoke one language. But even if we all could speak without hindrance, what would be the point, if there was nothing much worth talking about? Unless you believe that human existence comes down to trading in shares, you cannot be blind to the fact that language is the main repository of culture, or as Starbucks coffee cups now proclaim, that every language is an old-growth forest of the mind. If all the world's languages but one disappeared, global trade might be easier, perhaps, but what will be decimated is our cultural riches—surely one of the best excuses for our continuing existence.

In fact, there is a much better solution for easing communication, and that's multilingualism. In most western societies, not least in the United States, monolingualism is taken as the norm, while multilingualism is perceived as a fringe phenomenon, restricted to oddballs such as immigrants or miraculously gifted polyglots. But it ain't necessarily so. In many non-Western societies, it is taken for granted that people speak more than one language, and there are even places where everyone speaks more than two languages as a matter of course. To my mind, multilingualism is the perfect answer to the curse of Babel, as it will enable us to ease communication without robbing people of their cultural heritage.

Do you have any predictions about the future of language? Are we all eventually going to speak English? Or Chinese? Or some amalgam of various languages?

Although English is influencing many other languages at the moment, it seems highly unlikely that there will be an amalgam of languages, between Chinese and English, say. But many, many languages will go. Whether 50 percent of the world's languages, as some say, or 90 percent, as others predict, the only thing we can tell with any confidence is that the linguistic diversity in the world will be drastically reduced in the next few generations. But I don't feel so moved by the spirit of prophecy to predict which language (or languages) will eventually gain the upper hand. It's a sobering thought, though, that Akkadian, the language I specialize in, was the mightiest of languages for more than a thousand years—a lingua franca throughout large parts of the ancient world, a source of influence on languages near and far. And yet it died out and disappeared completely, leaving only clay tablets buried in the desert sand.

As much time as you spend studying languages, do you find yourself analyzing the way other people speak while you're engaged in everyday conversations?

I think all linguists have, to some extent, developed a sort of alienation with regard to language, in that they can't just switch off from analyzing it even when asked to pass the salt. But with me, there is a kind of double alienation, because I spend most of my time speaking a language (English) that's not my mother tongue. So talking requires much more effort, but the plus side is that because the language is less familiar, it can be easier to pick up on things that native speakers don't notice. And I get especially excited when I can spot changes in the making.

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