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
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.