The Unfolding of Language

an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention

by Guy Deutscher

358 pages, ISBN 0-8050-7907-6, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2005

Reviewed by J. M. Haile, Macatea Productions,

One by-product of studying a language other than your own is that you get to see various strategies for solving linguist problems; for some problems, different languages may use similar strategies, but for others they may differ. One pattern of similarities is captured in a law proposed by the brothers Grimm to explain consonant shifts in early Indo-European languages. For example, in many Germanic languages nouns evolved pronunciations and spellings in which an initial "p" shifted to an "f"; however, in many Romance languages, this shift did not occur. So today we find "père and pied" in French, "padre and piede" in Italian, but "fader and fod" in Danish, and "father and foot" in English.

To illustrate a strategic difference, compare the pattern of a regular verb conjugation in a Germanic language (such as English) to that in a Semitic language. In Arabic, the root of a regular verb is composed of three consonants, and the verb is conjugated by inserting particular vowel combinations before, between, and after the consonants. For example, the Arabic root for "wear" is "lbs", and the singular present conjugation includes these forms: a-lbas-u (I wear), ta-lbas-u (you, a male, wear), ta-lbas-ina (you, a female, wear), ya-lbas-u (he wears), ta-lbas-u (she wears).

But while similarities and differences among modern languages are interesting, more intriguing are the motivations and driving forces that promote change in how we speak and write. Change entails both creation and destruction, but it seems that erosion of a language is more easily recognized than creation.

Undoubtedly you are aware of the perennial grumblings against the degradation and corruption of the native tongue (any native tongue). But there is nothing new under the sun: Deutscher argues that such complaints have been voiced in most languages and in most generations, stretching back millennia. So if those complaints were, in fact, valid, then all of us around the globe would now be reduced to babbling in caveman-speak. Since we are not, we must conclude that the evolution of language is a more subtle process than it first appears.

This is not to say that erosion does not occur, for certainly it does. Consider the case system that was used in Latin: every Latin noun took a particular ending (the word changed) depending on how it was used in a sentence. Distinctions were made among five possible uses for a noun, so there were five cases: nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), genitive (possessive), and ablative (object of a preposition). But wait—it was really more complex than that. The endings for most cases differed depending on the gender of the noun and on whether it was singular or plural. But wait again—it was still worse than that. The case system applied not only to nouns, but also to pronouns (which stand for nouns) and to adjectives (which modify nouns).

Given such complexity, we can easily believe that the human yearning for simplicity was strong enough to erode the Latin case system, over many generations, into less imposing forms in the daughter Romance and Germanic languages. Nevertheless, we can still find remnants of such a system. For example, many English pronouns change forms depending on how they are used in a sentence: "he" (nominative), "him" (accusative, dative, ablative), and "his" (genitive).

All of this is to say that we can appreciate, fairly readily, how and why a language erodes—becomes less "pure"—and, further, erosion of a language is not necessarily a bad thing. More generally, Deutscher identifies three driving forces for change: economy, expressiveness, and analogy. That is, change reflects our need to communicate more efficiently and effectively. Deutscher suggests that all living languages must evolve, the implication being that if attempts to prevent a language from changing were successful, that language would stagnate and die.

But if erosion—gradual disruption of complex structures—is understandable and perceptible, then the real puzzle is, How do languages get to be so complex to begin with? If most of the changes we observe are destructive, then what were the driving forces and mechanisms that built such a complex structure as the Latin case system? Where are the creative changes that must be occurring in any language, today, to keep it alive and useful? This problem occupies the central portion of Deutscher's book, and I will leave Deutscher's solution to that puzzle for you to discover. The solution is subtle, as befits a subtle puzzle.

But though Deutscher has set himself a subtle set of problems to illuminate, his presentation is anything but ponderous or academic. His linguistic examples extend over a startling range of familiar and unfamiliar languages, and his writing is fresh, engaging, witty. The scholarship is plainly there to be seen—no need to dress it with fancy wordage. The book reveals a man who has a passion for what he does and is having fun doing it.

(jmh 27 June 06) © 2006 by J. M. Haile. All rights reserved.