If you like history, and if you happen to believe, as I do, that evolution theory can be employed to explain human cultural history, including its linguistic aspects, as well as it captures why finch beaks in the Galapagos have their myriad forms, this book will be at once entertaining and enlightening. Language evolves in much the same manner as organisms. Words in every language are forever arising, being winnowed down to their barest efficient forms, dying from want of usage, ultimately to be replaced by new words always aborning. Guy Deutscher does an excellent job explaining the process through which language evolves, along the way providing glimpses into the cultures from which they arise. I highly recommend the book.
I came to the book seeking to extend my understanding of language and how it is learned, in particular, in how second languages are learned. Since early this year, I’ve been devoting about ten hours a week as a volunteer in adult English conversation classes. I have discovered a pastime that I truly enjoy. As such, I’m on something of a quest to understand every aspect of language better—from the means through which it is acquired, to the similarities all languages share, to the processes through which it changes, and etc.
Through The Unfolding of Language, I quickly surmised that teaching language is quite like trying to hit a moving target. There is nothing static about any living language. The English with which I am writing and that I am trying to teach others today is the product of thousands of evolutionary years, and the process continues apace. Writings in English over five hundred years old are very nearly incomprehensible to today’s English speaker. Go back a thousand years, and there is only an indecipherably (to the layman) passing resemblance. Language, like cultural and technological innovations, evolves much quicker than genomes, perhaps explaining part of what makes adjustment to modern life so often difficult. We live in a world created by technology and culture which is then expressed through language. It is a world that our hunter gatherer genomes hardly recognize.
To take the first example Deutscher offers, imagine all of the various ways the word “go” might be today used. We are always “going” somewhere, a usage that captures its original essence. But we also wonder when the rain is “going to” stop. When presented with an interesting offer, we often respond by explaining that we are “going to” think about. In the first sentence, ‘going’ connoted the actual movement of a thing, in that instance, movement of the most important thing—our physical beings—from one place to another, which is what the word originally arose to describe. But now the word is used to express abstract intentions—a planned thinking, for instance—where nothing moves except invisible and nearly massless particles shooting between synapses in the mind, and even then, only at some future point. The phrase ‘going to’, which arose from the root ‘go’ expressing movement (which itself has far deeper roots), is now used as a marker of future tense. But still, there’s more. In informal, spoken English, it is rare (especially in my part of the country) to find anyone who actually says ‘going to’ phonetically properly anymore. The phrase has been shortened to ‘gonna’ [which my word processor has just tagged with those squiggly red subscripted lines indicating a misspelling. I’m gonna get me a smarter word processor one day—one that recognizes language for what it is and how it is used, not one that tries to impose its grammarian will on my scribblings. Dammit, there it went (another inflection of ‘go’) again].
Deutscher intentionally stays away from the linguistic nature vs. nurture argument. It doesn’t matter for his purposes whether nature decreed a certain type of language unfolding, or whether it could have gone a number of ways depending on the environmental challenges faced by the culture speaking the language. Or whether the human brain has evolved particular architecture for acquiring and using language, or whether it just employs its general computational capacity to do so. I think this is wise in a book on linguistics that is concerned only with a specific aspect of languages, to wit, the process through which changes arise. The nature vs. nurture debate skirts the boundaries of the process through which language unfolds, but the debate is so trenchant that the book would have devolved to nothing more than an argumentative thesis had it been his focus. Instead, Deutscher sticks to the facts of the unfolding, so far as they are discernible.
And it is the discernibility of facts that comprise the real limit to his explanations. Language has been around a lot longer than has writing, and most early writing was not preserved on clay tablets like the Sumerians did. There are no fossil relics to examine. Though language in some form has been around presumably as long as modern man’s roughly 200,000 years, the written trail only goes back about 5,000 years ago, and even that, only by some careful retracing of evolutionary steps. The principles of language evolution are ascertained by looking at the evolutionary paths taken by modern languages for which there is ample written evidence. The last of the good available evidence, the basis from which today’s languages evolved, and the products of its evolutionary past, can then be reverse engineered to craft the unfolding story of language. Deutscher is a master at it, and at clearly and evocatively explaining the results. But he admits, it involves a goodly portion of speculation.
Because part of my purpose for this review is to save for later reference some salient insights offered in the book, from here I think I will (I’m gonna) just list, chapter by chapter, the stuff I’d like to remember. But I hope you don’t use this review to save the trouble of reading the book. It is an informative and extremely well written book, which is not terribly surprising, as Deutscher is a Cambridge educated linguist who teaches at the University of Leiden. It has to be imagined that linguists, of all people, ought to be able to communicate ideas clearly, and especially so in writing, where the time constraints of speech aren’t so limiting.