- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books (June 1, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805079076
- ISBN-13: 978-0805079074
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #416,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention 0th Edition
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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)
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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
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Top customer reviews
A slight caveat. Readers seeking the source of Deutscher’s inspiration for his second book and the answer to the question ‘why do colors of the world look different in other languages’ will not find them in his first book. Although some similarities exist (mostly regarding gendered words), only one paragraph discusses the origin of color-words (236-7).
The definitive difference in the approach to language that I can discern between the two books is that Deutscher wrote The Unfolding of Language for linguists. No one but a linguist would wade joyfully through hundreds of examples of disparate word endings, beginnings, and missing middle words. Through the Language Glass is easier to read, but lacks the linguistic history of The Unfolding of Language, and appears to be written more for the dilettante than the serious linguist.
Although the foregoing brief critique may sound harsh, do not make the mistake of thinking The Unfolding of Language is an uninteresting book. On the contrary, it is fascinating – even for an amateur.
Deutscher describes how languages change over time, and he offers some explanations for the changes. And he does this with some flair; it's more Bill Bryson than textbook.
He shows how the slang of today becomes the formal, proper language of tomorrow. This process has been occurring for millennia. It's interesting to hear the criticisms of ancient Roman commentators about the careless language of the day.
He also gives some insight into how certain languages work. I'd always wondered about the various salaams, shaloms, and the like in Semitic languages. Why are they so similar, but not exactly the same? And what about Latin case structure - what is that all about? Deutscher explains some of these potentially tedious topics in an interesting and informative manner.
After reading this book, you'll never hear language quite the same way again.
Essential reading for grammar Nazis!
The only shortcoming I find is that the thesis is presented without reference to who discovered it. If it is entirely the work of the author, this should be stated; or the contributions of others should be acknowledged. It is not so much a matter of who gets the credit, as to understand the evolution of the concepts. The view he puts forth is undoubtedly quite controversial in academic circles, and one suspects that this is the reason for his omitting this aspect of the subject. Perhaps he drew the lesson from the reception given Merritt Ruhlen, who is often criticized for being overly polemical in his advocacy of Greenberg's work pointing to monogenesis. The reactionary nature of academia when confronted with a new paradigm is well-known, and as bad, or worse, in the field of philology as in any other.
The author's work rates 5 stars in my view. I have reduced my review of the product review to 4 stars because of a production defect in two successive copies I received from Amazon. I returned one copy but received a replacement with the same defect-- a small pucker in all the central pages, probably caused by the fingers of the stitcher grasping too tightly. One expects a perfect copy when buying a new book. Although a minor annoyance, it did not affect the readability of the type, and is not noticeable from the outside.