Nathan's Reviews > The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher
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's review
Dec 11, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: language
Read in December, 2011

I admit it, I love language. Despite this, I've been astonishingly slow to pick up the overall history and shape of language. I've picked bits of the history of English (Celts, Germans, French, vowel shift) but never the overall picture of how languages change. I didn't even realize that, beyond "we are lazy buggers and mangle words", that it had been codified.

Boy, was I wrong!

As I read this book, I kept pausing to relate bits of what I'd learned to my kids. The author points to two great tectonic forces in language: contraction and metaphor. As we lazily pronounce words, they shrink because we favour the shorter versions. As we need new meanings (either for new concepts or simply because old meanings have lost rhetorical force) we create them from old words, using metaphor. These forces, erosion and construction, keep languages alive.

Deutscher backs this up with oodles of evidence. The killer revelation for me is that erosion is PREDICTABLE. Holy shit! As languages emerged from their common indoeuropean ancestor, their consonants all decayed in similar ways. For example, 'p' becomes 'f'. So the relationship between "Father" and "Pater" is as between "fish" and "pesce", "food" and "ped-", "first" and "premier". Entire relationships between equivalent words in different languages became apparent to me within the space of one chapter.

This rule is so solid that it predicted the existence of a new consonant in indoeuropean, the "missing link" between some equivalent words in modern languages. The story of how that was found is one of many "holy crap!" moments in this book. Oh, and who discovered that law of decaying consonants? One of the Brothers Grimm.

Language is beautiful, it's alive, and it's fascinating. Read this book.
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