The Unfolding of Language


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Psychology, Writing

The key argument in Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention grows out of the subtitle. Deutscher argues convincingly that languages branch and mutate much like species, though the process is different in that it occurs within and between the minds of human beings. People working to express themselves both concisely and forcefully continuously change their languages, building up complex grammatical structures and other linguistic elements while also shortening and simplifying and forgetting. As with biological evolution, the process of change leaves traces:

For whenever one finds impressive edifices in language, one is also likely to find scores of imperfections, a tangle of irregularities, redundancies, and idiosyncracies that mar the picture of a perfect design. (p.40 paperback)

All the complexities of this process exceed the scope of what any linguist or group of linguists can ever really track, since we are all involved in the re-invention of language whenever we communicate. Still, Deutscher is able to draw on examples from many languages to demonstrate and defend his argument, all while openly acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and the questions that can only be answered partially and by conjecture.

There are no doubt readers who will revel in every example in Deutscher’s 274 pages plus appendices, but I personally found myself well convinced of his basic thesis by the time I was halfway through. The key to understanding it comes in the second chapter, in which Deutscher draws attention to how we are all exposed to a whole spectrum of usage of any particular language during the ordinary course of life. We deal with upper class speakers who are pernickety about rules of grammar and with rebellious teenagers who develop their own cryptic argots and transfer patterns of abbreviation from text messages and Twitter into their love letters and academic papers. With so much variation at a single point in time, it is no surprise that language as a whole can drift across time, without ever creating solid breaks where people stop being able to understand one another. A word like ‘willy-nilly’ can go from meaning ‘whether you like it or not’ to ‘done in a haphazard way’ without anyone imposing that change on the language, and without the word becoming incomprehensible to anyone.

Speaking of this linguistic evolution generally, Deutscher says:

[T]his invention is not the design of any one architect, nor does it follow the dictates of any master plan. It is the result of thousands of small-scale spontaneous analogical innovations, introduced by order-craving minds across the ages. So while language may never have been invented, it was nonetheless shaped by the attempts of generations of speakers to make sense of the mass of details they have to absorb. (208)

Deutscher goes on to explain:

The elaborate conventions of language needed no gifted inventor to conceive them, no prehistoric assembly of elders to decree their shape, nor even an overseer to guide their construction. Of course, saying that language changes ‘of its own accord’ does not mean that it evolved independently of people’s actions. Behind the forces of change there are always people – the speakers of a language.

For my part, I am trying to change the general convention on punctuation and quotation marks. It would also be nice if English dealt with possession and contraction in a less confusing way.

Deutscher’s account of metaphors in language is also convincing and worthy of attention. He shows how we reach out to metaphors in an effort to make our points clearly and forcefully. (So many metaphors, when you start looking! Reaching out! Points! Clarity! Forcefulness! All concrete concepts being used to express abstract ideas.) The book is also scattered throughout with charming little facts about the history of words and how they have changed across time, including extremely common words with non-obvious origins. Deutscher also makes good use of humour in pointing out some of the stranger aspects of language. For example, Deutscher quotes Mark Twain’s priceless poem mocking German along with doggerel making fun of the inconsistencies in English spelling.

Deutscher’s book was recommended to me by Stephen Fry- not directly, but in his comforting and inspiring ‘podgram’ on language. I made extensive use of that podgram in shaking off the absurdly parochial and self-righteous perspective on English maintained by the creators of the Graduate Record Examination. Deutscher’s book is a similarly effective response to anyone who assumes that their language – as they happen to speak it – is correct and eternal and that all variations are representative of the failures in the education of other people. Language is something we all do together – one of the most important inheritances of humanity. Both Fry and Deutscher are right to wish that language were taught and understood more as a participatory process than as a set of rules to be followed.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. August 12, 2013 at 12:21 pm

“Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.”

-Amos Bronson Alcott

. June 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

Some detect a European form of global English (globish): a patois with English physiognomy, cross-dressed with continental cadences and syntax, a train of EU institutional jargon and sequins of linguistic false friends (mostly French). In Brussels “to assist” means to be present, not to help; “to control” means to check, rather than to exercise power; “adequate” means appropriate or suitable, rather than (barely) sufficient; and mass nouns are countable, such as advices, informations and aids. “Anglo-Saxon” is not a historical term referring to Germanic tribes in Britain, but a political insult followed by “capitalism” or even “press”.

. November 9, 2014 at 8:56 pm

“Style variation is not only possible; it is desirable, allowing a speaker or writer to communicate not only content but meta-content—how the speaker or writer feels about the content and how it should be taken. We can be both logical and consistent without straitjacketing the language so tightly as to make its native speakers writhe in discomfort. If you think yourself articulate and care about English, yet can’t force yourself to speak as Mr Heller of the prestigious New Yorker would have you do, don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s him.”

. April 24, 2017 at 4:05 pm

HOW America was originally colonised is a topic of perennial interest at the AAAS. Until recently, the earliest uncontested archaeological evidence of people living in the New World came from Swan Point, in Alaska. This dates back 14,400 years. Linguists, however, maintain that the diversity of native languages in the Americas could not have arisen so quickly. Conventional models of linguistic evolution assume tongues separate in the way populations of organisms do—so that the flow of vowels, words and grammatical structures between groups must cease before new languages can emerge, just as a cessation of gene flow gives rise to new species. This suggests it would take at least 50,000 years for a single population speaking a single language to diversify and spread through the Americas in a way that yielded the pattern heard today. Since Native Americans’ genes do, indeed, indicate they all derive from a single population, this discrepancy in timing is a paradox.

That paradox may be close to resolution. Recent digs have pushed the physical evidence of America’s settlement back in time. Meanwhile, as the meeting heard from Mark Sicoli, a linguist at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, a different model of linguistic evolution brings the common ancestor of Native-American tongues forward. Apply a few error bars to the results and the two estimates touch—at about 25,000 years ago.

The problem with explaining linguistic evolution in pure Darwinian terms is that words are not genes. Species, once separate, do not exchange genetic information because they do not interbreed. Languages, though, can exchange grammatical and semantic elements when they meet, which can speed up diversification. Dr Sicoli thus turned to computational phylogenetic analysis, an area of linguistic research that tries to work out whether and how such interaction may have taken place.

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