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The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention [Hardcover]

Guy Deutscher
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 19, 2005 0805079076 978-0805079074 0
Blending the spirit of Eats, Shoots & Leaves with the science of The Language Instinct, an original inquiry into the development of that most essential-and mysterious-of human creations: Language

Language is mankind's greatest invention-except, of course, that it was never invented." So begins linguist Guy Deutscher's enthralling investigation into the genesis and evolution of language. If we started off with rudimentary utterances on the level of "man throw spear," how did we end up with sophisticated grammars, enormous vocabularies, and intricately nuanced degrees of meaning?

Drawing on recent groundbreaking discoveries in modern linguistics, Deutscher exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication, giving us fresh insight into how language emerges, evolves, and decays. He traces the evolution of linguistic complexity from an early "Me Tarzan" stage to such elaborate single-word constructions as the Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz ("you are one of those whom we couldn't turn into a town dweller"). Arguing that destruction and creation in language are intimately entwined, Deutscher shows how these processes are continuously in operation, generating new words, new structures, and new meanings.

As entertaining as it is erudite, The Unfolding of Language moves nimbly from ancient Babylonian to American idiom, from the central role of metaphor to the staggering triumph of design that is the Semitic verb, to tell the dramatic story and explain the genius behind a uniquely human faculty.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Using language himself in a lively and engaging way, Deutscher, an expert in Semitic languages at the University of Leiden in Holland, identifies two principles—the desire to create order out of chaotic reality, and the urge to vary the sounds of words and their meanings—providing the direction by which language developed and continues to develop. Rather than search for the prehistoric moment when speech originated, Deutscher says we can most profitably understand the phenomenon by taking the present as the key to the past. Using a wide array of examples, he delves into the back-formation of words (making a noun into a verb), the evolution of relative clauses from simple pointing words (that, this) and the turning of objects into nouns. On the question of whether language is innate, Deutscher takes a middle path, asserting that our brains are wired for basic language, but that linguistic complexity is brought about by cultural evolution. Deutscher's entertaining writing and his knack for telling a good tale about how words develop offer a delightful and charming story of language. (June 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The linguistic chain that connects the boasts of an ancient Sumerian monarch to the jests of Groucho Marx is long and convoluted, but Deutscher retraces it, fascinating link by fascinating link, identifying the dynamic processes that have continuously transformed and renewed the world's diverse languages. Even when delving deeply into ancient manuscripts and temple engravings, Deutscher interprets every linguistic mutation as the consequence of evolutionary forces still observable in today's living languages. Readers see in linguistic fossils from Mesopotamia traces of the same conversion of living metaphor into conceptual lattice still taking place in modern English, German, and Indonesian. What Deutscher demonstrates most clearly is how linguistic structures that look like the product of deliberate artifice can emerge from entirely natural processes. Predictably, when he probes the linguistic developments before the advent of writing, the author must frequently substitute his own speculations for solid evidence. Entailing just enough technical detail to tempt readers into professional sources (listed at the book's conclusion), this introduction to fundamental linguistic principles opens to nonspecialists a rich theoretical vista. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books (May 19, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805079076
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805079074
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #431,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
101 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable and interesting June 6, 2005
This book is a very interesting attempt to present an explanation for the origin of some of the features of today's language structures. The author does not try to go back to the very beginning of language itself, but takes his story from the point where words already existed, but most grammatical structure had not yet evolved, still before any language of which a record survives.

The author uses examples in present-day languages to illustrate processes in linguistic evolution that are currently taking place or have taken place recently enough to be well documented. This lends a lot of credibility to his ideas.

Because the author was born in Israel (presumably having modern Israeli Hebrew as his first language) and has become a specialist in Semitic historical linguistics, he presents more examples from Semitic languages than one often sees in popular linguistics books intended for the English-language reader, but it is all written in a very easily understood way, and I find the book as readable as if it had been written by a native speaker of English, though with a few signs that the English which the author learned was more British than American.

There is only one negative comment I would make, and that does not sufficiently detract from the value of the book that I would deny it a 5-star rating: I wish that the author would more clearly separate his own personal speculations from the ideas which are believed by the majority of linguistics professionals. It is clear that a lot of the ideas presented in this book are the author's own, but it is not clear how many.
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53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best linguistics book I've ever read October 20, 2006
I loved this book. I've read several books on linguistics; but this has to be the best of the lot. It's so fun to read that I didn't want to put it down. (I even found myself laughing out loud several times while reading it.) In addition to being fun to read, it's very informative. I took a couple of linguistics courses in college, have read a number of books on the subject, and have studied the rudiments of several languages; but I think I've learned more about language from this book than I learned in all of my previous studies. If you're a student of linguistics, foreign languages, or English grammar (or even if you have only a passing interest in these subjects), you've got to read this book.

The purpose of the book is to explain how and why language changes over time: How did we get from simple "me Tarzan" grunts to the complex linguistic structures of languages like Latin? Why is the English spoken today so different from the English spoken only a few centuries ago? How are the various languages of the world related to each other -- and how do we account for the similarities and differences between them? In order to answer these questions, the book takes us on a fascinating (and fun) tour of language; delving into the often mysterious world of grammar, usage, and phonetics; shedding some much-needed light on everything from the multiple declensions of Latin, to the 3-consonant root system of the Semitic languages, to the seemingly bizarre discrepancy between French spelling and pronunciation, to the importance of word order, to why a "father" is actually a "pater", and how a "pod" became a "foot". If you're into language, you won't be disappointed with this book. It's very insightful.
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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun Book On Language A Little Wordy June 20, 2005
Guy Deutscher makes learning about language fun in his book The Unfolding Of Language. Deutscher, a mathematician turned linguist, has a great sense of humor and a joy for his subject that comes through in his writing. The author takes what could be a really dry subject [think back to language classes [both English and foreign] in high school - bet you really liked conjugating all those verbs!] and most of the time makes it glide by as the reader gets a fairly deep education on the evolution of language. My biggest complaint about the book [and the reason for my agonized over 4 star rating] is that it starts to feel like overtime has been called towards the end of the book. I think Deutscher already had a sense of this since what could've ended up as 5 more chapters [or at least additions to 5 existing chapters] are attached at the back of the book as Appendices A through F. I have nothing against detail, but would've liked to have seen more of the material sent to the back of the book as extended notes or another appendix. Still, I feel that The Unfolding Of Language is a very worthwhile read, worth the effort, and I learned a lot and had a good time doing it!
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating and accessible read August 7, 2005
The author calls language an "uninvented invention". This very engaging book is an attempt to uncover at least some of the secrets of language and to dismantle the stated paradox. By drawing on recent discoveries in linguistics, Deutscher explores the elusive forces of creation, change and the innate structure of language. In addition, he investigates the way that the elaborate conventions of communication develop in human society. This cultural evolution means the emergence of behavioural codes that are passed on from generation to generation.

Chapter One: Castles In The Air, takes a close look at the structure of language, whilst the following chapter: Perpetual Motion, demonstrates linguistic development and change with particular reference to English, German, French and the Indo-European language family as a whole. Chapter Three: Forces Of Destruction, is a further investigation of how and why changes in sound and meaning take place, with many examples from Indo-European. Chapter Four examines interesting verbs like "To have/to hold" and the concepts of space and time in linguistic expression.

Chapter Five: Forces Of Creation, is a discussion of how new words and structures arise, how meanings change and how languages are enriched by these developments. Chapter Six looks at the need for order in languages and contains lots of interesting information on the Semitic family and its intricate verbal system. In essence, the effects of erosion interact with the mind's craving for order. There is thus a constant search for regular patterns and spontaneous analogical innovations arise. This is based on erosion + expressiveness and erosion + analogy.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Creative destruction in philology--brilliantly elaborated
A brilliant solution to the conundrum: why does language so often proceed from more to less complex structure, as one sees in comparing Sanskrit, ancient Greek, or Latin to the... Read more
Published 7 days ago by SiteReader
5.0 out of 5 stars never boring
As someone who just wanted to know a little more about languages I found this book a great read. The book has sparked an interest in me to delve further into the subject.
Published 1 month ago by Klaas Barends
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and delightful
This book was my first serious exploration of Linguistics after being introduced to the discipline in Anthropology class. It is clearly written and easy to follow. Read more
Published 2 months ago by joatmor
4.0 out of 5 stars very interesting, written clearly and well-argued
interesting read. makes good points and writes clearly and with insight.
recommended for anyone interested in history and development of language...
Published 2 months ago by mark r
4.0 out of 5 stars A serious book but delightful to read
An eye opener to aspects of language that we all have taken for granted, which all have explainable historic origins. A bit long, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Dr. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Beaver
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and overall excellent book
For whatever reason I became interested in how languages differ, often to the extent that it's hard to express something that makes perfect sense in a sensible way in another. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Will Earnest
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Subject, Sparkling Presentation -- A Terrific Book.
This is one of the best and most exciting books I've ever read on language (I 'm not a professional, but I am a devotee). Read more
Published 6 months ago by Anne Mills
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely amazing!
One of the most interesting books I've ever read. This book made me incredibly interested in the field of linguistics. I'd love to shake the author's hand.
Published 8 months ago by Eugene Denisov
4.0 out of 5 stars Great introduction into evolutionary linguistics
Mr. Deutscher does the layman a great service in introducing us to some of the difficult ideas about the history of languages and their evolutionary development over the ages. Read more
Published 11 months ago by David H. Rubin
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book
This is a wonderful account of what we know about the evolution and transmission of language - it crackles with ideas and anecdotes. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Dr. James M. Cummins
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