- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st Edition edition (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: 103 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #780,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention 1st Edition 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
Top customer reviews
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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 destruction of language structures, as well as the creation of new ones is explained with very illustrative examples taken fom a wide variety of languages and from different historic periods. (Other reviewers have already explained the involved forces). Most 20th/21st century linguists believe that the same forces that acted on prehistoric languages should be the same forces at play now, so by observing present (or at least more or less recent) language changes we should be able to understand the forces that shaped our current languages.
Creative changes are harder to observe than destructive ones, since it is easier to observe a present irregularity and look for its origin in the past (the action of a destructive force) than to look at something that looks regular now and imagine that sometime in the past it was irregular. Therefore, the only way to observe such creative processes is by noting an irregularity in some old text, which has somehow become regular in the present. This difficulty gave rise to the widespread idea among 19th century experts that language was only decaying. Although linguists have finally managed to observe some creative phenomena, these are not enough to compensate for the erosion that is evident in languages. Maybe written language and the existence of formal "grammar" and "ortography" are hindering or at least slowing down the creative processes. Linguists still do not know if this situation will lead us to a frightening erosion of meaning and structure in language (for example almost all noun cases existing in Proto-Indo-European, Latin and some Germanic languages are disappearing). Personally, I do not believe language will deteriorate to that point, since the very function of language (communicating meanings between individuals) would be threatened. Therefore, maybe we will reach some critical point and afterwards there will be a Cambric explosion of meaning and structure, it's a pity we will probably not witness this.
The only thing I found lacking was a linkage to real world history, outside of the language context. That is, what was happening in the world while certain language developments were taking place. That must be the subject of another book.