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

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  3,179 ratings  ·  272 reviews
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 degree ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published May 2nd 2006 by Holt Paperbacks (first published January 1st 2005)
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Dec 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language
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 tecton
Nov 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I need to begin this review by stating emphatically what this book is not. Despite its somewhat misleading cover, it is not a scientific description of how language emerged in evolution, how grunting developed into speech. If that is what you are looking for, you will not find it here, as the author states there is no real evidence on which to determine that sequence of events. What this book is, however, is an utterly fascinating, well-grounded exploration of the basic principles which shape th ...more
K.J. Charles
A very in depth look at how language evolved, which doesn't give much space to 'language instinct' and 'universal grammar' and instead provides a really plausible account of how things like declensions and prefixes and genders evolved and indeed disappeared over time.

Mostly it's written in the very accessible and friendly style of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages but the author has inexplicably included a bunch of whimsical fables and twee dialogues w
John Brown
Oct 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I can highly recommend it. I started (but did not finish) a PhD in Computational Linguistics, and was put off by the unnecessary complexity of Head Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. Since then I have read a lot of linguistic books to try to understand the motivation for such complexity.
Deutscher keeps things simple, whilst answering all sort of questions that had occurred to me concerning the evolution of languages. The level of treatment is just a bit deeper than Pinker's "The Language Instinct"
Jul 06, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: research, early-man
Dr. Deutscher has done a scholarly, thorough discussion on the roots of language, but I believe he started too late in time. I'm of the persuasion that language involves more than the spoken word. I find body language (which proponents argue communicate half of what we speak), facial expressions (think FACS, FBI, microexpressions), movement to be as telling of a person's intentions as words. Sometimes more so. Yet, he argues language was born when we could prove it was born--"...for how can anyo ...more
Eren Buğlalılar
Sep 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: populer-bilim
Brilliant. A strong reasoning combined with good research and a clear prose.

Deutscher explains the historical development of languages based on four dynamics:

i. Erosion. Every language has an innate tendency to distort the consonants, shorten the words, shed the suffixes, merge two or three words etc.
ii. Creation. Then, for expressive purposes languages once again introduce new words before or after the shortened words, strengthening their meaning.
iii. Metaphor. All our languages are graveyards
Sep 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing
By far the best tour of linguistics for the layman, as pertaining to the development of language. Many books which delve into this meaty topic provide a lot of cute examples of etymology, without a really coherent exposition of the processes that have shaped the structure of language, and how linguists uncovered them.
Professor Deutscher does a lively job of bringing the general reader's attention to the tendencies that have shaped the development of language -- erosion, emphasis, and metaphor.
Andrew Breslin
Mar 03, 2019 rated it liked it
This started out as a strong 4-star book, possibly going up to a 5, but as I slogged through the details on fricatives and declension and glottal stops and the structure of Semitic verbs, it steadily declined and by the end I was tempted to give it a 2. Rather than any indication of inconsistent effort and presentation on behalf of its skilled author, I think this simply reflects the fact that linguistics is fascinating from a distance and dreadfully dull up close.

I love etymology. I love tracin
Simon Cleveland, PhD
Apr 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, language
A couple of days ago I finished reading 'The Unfolding of Language : An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention' by Guy Deutscher. Wow, it's exhausting just to say the name, imagine what it felt like to read the book. But, seriously the work is intellectually challenging and often provoked me to engage in thoughts on the ever changing state of human language. And yes, metaphors are the erodent of language (in case you were wondering). Many times I found myself reminiscing about the com ...more
Mar 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those particularly interested in how languages develop.
[22 Mar 2019]
This is not a good book for reading on a kindle or a phone, or even a small tablet. The problem is that the text is strewn with examples that the text discusses. These examples, which are often in languages other than English, are actually graphics so they do not expand when the main text expands and they started out as really small text. Mostly they are unreadable. If you have a touch screen it helps because you can expand the graphic a little bit, but it's annoying to have to sele
Andre Correa
Mar 28, 2017 rated it liked it
I've learned a bunch of interesting things through this book, like how the forces of destruction and construction are continuously combined to shape language and the ubiquitous presence of metaphors all along. Another interesting aspect is the realization of mankind's inclination for doing more with less and the need for order reflected in the constant evolution of language. It's also worth noticing the highly complex framework of Semitic languages as well as how basic choices in the verb-object ...more
Jul 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a delightful and fascinating book. It's very readable and entertaining and I don't think that I will ever look at language quite the same way again. I wished, quite early on in the book, that I had read it(or had it to read) twenty years ago when I was teaching English in Japan. It made a lot of issues and problems that my students were facing much clearer to me, and if nothing else I wish I'd been able to explain to my students WHY English spelling is so screwy.

The author doesn't try
Karen Chung
Sep 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book in fact reflects many thoughts and ideas that I have had about language and language evolution over the years - but the author has actually developed them and presents them in a reader-friendly, even enjoyable form. I think this volume would be an excellent supplementary text for an introduction to linguistics course - and I may use it in this way next time I teach such a course. It was the most-often suggested book in the Bedtime Readings in Linguistics list that I updated for the LIN ...more
gage sugden
Jan 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Preface: I read this book as part of an English class assignment.

It's made me seriously consider pursuing an MA Linguistics. As in before reading this book I was excitedly looking forward to graduating with my BA English next year, and now I'm literally looking at grad schools to apply to.

If you've never read or learned about linguistics before (which I hadn't), this book will either bore you to tears or blow your mind. Deutscher absolutely gets into the nitty gritty of several elements, while s
Mar 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fabulous. Though I did get tired around the 80% mark. This book is especially for those who feel that the quality of modern language (be it English or otherwise) is deteriorating and is poorer than in the past. There was never a golden period where people spoke and wrote perfectly simply because there is no "pure" language. Language has always morphed and mutated due to people's need for economy, expressiveness and analogy. (read the book, I don't want to get into the details here).
I totally re
Sep 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic book about formation of languages. Very well-structure, coherent and full of interesting examples. Highly recommended!
Ovi Oprea
Aug 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The book is an overview of how language developed and how it changes through the ages. It is easy to read even for someone who has never read any linguistics books. The author is very playful with his subject. The vocabulary is very down-to-earth because all the complexities of linguistics are broken down into pieces of information that one can easily relate to because of everyday experience with language, while the reader is still informed about the major theories and the theoreticians of lingu ...more
Brian Cloutier
Jan 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
The kind of 5 star book which makes me want to go back and knock down some of my past reads by a star or two.

I'm a sucker for books which invoke systems and forces and tendencies, this book has all of those; it's fun to imagine the erosion of linguistics. He paints a great picture of how it's possible for a community to unconsciously build grand structures such as the latin case system or the semitic system of verb stems and, still unconsciously, grind them back down to nothing.

This book is wri
Nancy Mills
May 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Well worth reading. Probably the most in-depth book on linguistics that I have yet read, and occasionally challenging but always intriguing and entertaining.
Gives a great answer to the question of why language seems to go from beautifully constructed to a big tangle of broken rules. Language is constantly eroding (going to becomes "gonna") but also constantly being added to. Nouns become verbs and verbs force themselves into nounship, words merge, people impose a template used on one word onto a
Feb 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a mostly excellent tour of basic ideas behind historical linguistics, introducing at its center the idea that languages simultaneously collapse phrases to be more economical and expand them to be more expresses. The book shows how even the most complex morphological and syntactic structures arise naturally from this process.

The last chapter, which tied it all together to show how recursive syntax first arose, felt like it petered out after a very entertaining read. It's not fair, but the
Feb 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book answers questions like how languages change over time, in particular, how do complex grammatical features come into being, how close languages diverge over time, and what are some of the laws that govern all these changes. It's an absolutely fascinating read, and a real eye opener, and what's very special about it is that it all sounds very much common sense - nothing is too complicated, the whole book almost is kind of obvious - the way Sherlock Holmes' insights are obvious to Dr. Wat ...more
Aug 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic, funny, and insightful book drawing on a vast amount of material to answer the seemingly unanswerable question? How does language come to be and what makes it change? Not as overtly partisan as Steven Pinker (an innatist) , Deutcher opens up more avenues for exploration, and his wit is just as sparkling.
I am not sure you'd be capable of digesting all of chapters, but even those few you'd manage will constitute for an inspirational and thought-provoking read. You'll never regret spending your time on it, because it will greatly enhance your understanding of language and its structure. ...more
Cullen Mackenzie
Sep 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have read and reread this book, and am constantly recommending it to anyone who had even the slightest interest in Linguistics. It is a magical journey into what makes languages.
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I got this book with the expectation that it would be about the evolution of language, i.e. the transformation from a no-language-equipped brain into a language-equipped brain, but it is about how languages mutate into some other languages, e.g. Indo-European => Germanic => English. I got misled by the cover. However, I find the ‘The Unfolding of Language’ really fascinating and remarkably entertaining. I was intrigued by how Deutscher was able to demystify technical concepts in a way that I don ...more
Matthijs Krul
Jan 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very readable popular introduction to language change. Unlike many such books, it doesn't just focus on sound change, but has at least as much discussion of grammaticalization. Unfortunately, for me the book was not as useful as I had hoped since much of it is at such a basic level that if you have any prior linguistics knowledge, you may find the first few chapters kinda frustrating (he elaborately explains what a case system is, etc). Also, presumably out of a desire to be accessible - or mayb ...more
John Fredrickson
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, language
This is an excellent book on the dynamics of language change. One hears forever about how language is experiencing decay in these times - this book looks into some of these symptoms of decay, and explains why this is a misreading of language change. The book uses English examples in abundance, but also delves into the sentence and word structures of wildly different languages, particular Semitic and Turkish, but also others.

It is interesting to read examples of how language 'simplifies' over tim
Enrique Mañas
Apr 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you are a linguistic aficionado, you have always been looking for the holy grail of the linguistics book. That imaginary unit whose existence is in question. That volume that formulates a unifying theory for the language development. Such a grueling task among the ocean of selection.

I am not sure if The Unfolding of Language or any other book fall into this category, or is only our human impetus to categorize everything with the taxonomic persistence of a botanic. Regardless of whether this b
Dylan Steinfeld
Jan 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
Although it reads like a textbook at times, The Unfolding of Language is a witty and fun read about the progression and simultaneous erosion of languages over time. I was a little disappointed (but not surprised) that the book has a heavy focus on English and other Indo-European languages (e.g. Semitic, Germanic, and Romance languages) with very few examples / anecdotes from East Asian, Native American, and African languages. All that said, it’s a great read for anyone who has a passion for lang ...more
Sep 01, 2018 marked it as xx-dnf-skim-reference
Couldn't get into it. I'm still curious to read theories about how language first started, but this promised to be a treatise on linguistic analysis, with a chapter at the end that goes back in time only as far as the 'me Tarzan' stage. ...more
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There is more than one author with this name
For the physics professor, please see: Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher is the author of Through the Language Glass and The Unfolding of Language. Formerly a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge and of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Languages in the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he is an honorary Research Fellow at the School of Language

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