The Unfolding of Language: Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher: The Unfolding of Language

We have “finished” this book at last. That is, two of us have read and discussed it, chapter by chapter. The third has been visiting her eighteen-month-old grandson and bringing back to us fresh data on language acquisition. We have been highly satisfied with our reading of the book and even more delighted by Isaac’s miraculous move into language.

In this book Guy Deutscher has made a convincing case for using the processes of language change which we can see at work now to propose a theory as to how these same processes have shaped language over the four thousand years or so for which we have evidence in the form of written records. He makes the parallel with Geology, which also uses evidence from the present day to understand the historical processes which have formed the earth. He firmly leaves on one side questions, such as the relation between animal language and human language, for which we have no evidence.

Unlike the last two books we have read, Deutscher spends little time rubbishing Chomsky’s answer to the question of where grammar comes from, the theory which has dominated academic linguistics for the last fifty years. Instead, he proposes an alternative answer, meticulously showing (with evidence from written texts) how grammar emerged little by little from a hypothesized primitive state which he calls “Me Tarzan, you Jane”.

This “unfolding of language” happens because of the complementary processes of destruction and creation. Destruction is the way in which language changes because of the way in which human beings cut out fine distinctions and simplify in order to expedite communication. For example, the Latin month from the name of the Emperor Augustus is reduced in Old French to “aout”. Pedants in the nineteenth century lamented the deterioration of the Indo-European case and gender system by this human carelessness into the modern languages, such as French and particularly English, which have lost most of their case and gender endings and have developed other simpler markers to convey the many subtleties of time, reliability, role in the sentence, tracking etc. which both types of grammar encode.

One of the creative processes which lead to language change is the need for more expressiveness, which enters language through metaphor. This book explicitly taps into the huge reservoir of metaphor which makes abstract thought possible. For example, the abstract word “structure” is derived from the Latin word for a building. (I was delighted to find this vital part of Breakthrough to Learning in an academic book.)

The second creative process is “the craving for order” which, for instance, imposes regular tense endings on verbs by analogy with the majority. We see this in language acquisition where children automatically try out “comed” and “thinked” on analogy with “used” and “wanted”.

This summary does not do justice to the immensely detailed scholarship which traces the origin of prepositions to metaphoric extension from nouns (e.g. “behind”) and verbs (e.g. “help” to “with”).

I will leave to my next blog my praises of the author’s own rich and subtle use of language to convey these complex ideas to readers like ourselves. We have so enjoyed working through the book that our next one is Deutscher’s more recent book: Through the Language Glass.



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