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The Unfolding of Language is a book written by Guy Deutscher, a professor of linguistics at the Dutch University of Leiden. Drawing on relatively recent discoveries and theories, Deutscher attempts to prove a very surprising hypothesis* indeed: that the forces often blamed for destroying language are in fact identical to the forces that allow language to grow. He discusses each of these forces individually and their combined effects on languages, and finishes off by illustrating the growth of a sample protolanguage into a full-fledged language equivalent in power to most languages of today.

I highly urge anyone interested in languages, from the professor to the amateur, to take a look at this book. Deutscher is knowledgeable and understandable, and the ideas he expresses are mind-boggling. More importantly, I found myself eventually unable to put down The Unfolding of Language, which is a lot to say for a work on linguistics. The ability to feel yourself, even for a few fleeting moments, reading the history of every word you speak, is breath-taking. Deutscher manages to convey all of this.

What, then, are Deutscher's ideas? In his book, he primarily focuses on three forces identifiable with linguistic change, which he terms economy, expressiveness, and analogy. Each force is assumed desirable for speakers of a given language, and, although any can be seen as bringing about linguistic destruction, they combine simply to create change.

Economy is the will of a speaker to make eir language less complicated, primarily in speech but also in writing. Thus, extraneous syllables are shortened or rendered silent, unnecessary particles are eliminated, and words are pronounced with the minimum of inflection to render them understandable. Living in Korea myself, I hear this every day: the common greeting "an.nyeong.ha.se.yo" is often pronounced more like "ayeoaseyo", the "h" and "ng" being practically elided into nothingness. Also in this category falls the eponymous Grimm's Law, a process which took place in the Germanic language family and by which forceful sounds like /k/ are eventually decreased into quiter sounds like /h/. This process is often mirrored in other languages -- we obtain cognates such as English "hot" and Italian "caldo" -- although both came from the same Proto-Indo-European root, English speakers lost the /k/ sound because of the desire to economise pronunciation. Although, of course, the loss of sound is often seen as a bad trait in pronunciation, we owe to it several defining characteristics of our modern language -- for example, contractions such as "don't" and the silent "e" in verb forms such as "liked".

Expressiveness is the desire to be able to communicate with more force. This usually involves using more words to describe an idea, and thus counteracts the principle of economy. For example, the Latin "hodie", meaning "today", was corrupted in Middle French into "hui". However, French speakers, in order to communicate more clearly and more forcefully, added the equivalent of "on the day of" to form "au jour d'hui" or "aujourd'hui", "on the day of today". Nowadays, the process repeats itself with Francophones saying "au jour d'aujourd'hui", "on the day of on the day of today." In Old English, the equivalent of "up" was concatenated to itself to form "above", which is now used in the phrase "up above". Deutscher claims this process, alternating the adding of words and the paring-down of sounds, to be the origin of case endings such as the English possessive, "Harry's". Although expressiveness gives rise to clichés like "this day and age" and neologisms like "gifting", it allows us to move against economy and continue speech with the same emotion.

Analogy, the last of Deutscher's three principles, is the human tendency to extend words beyond their natural meaning. Many prepositions are said to originate because of this need to make metaphors -- for example, "behind" and "back of" both derive from actual human body parts, a situation mirrored in other languages. The extension is then often carried out to time as well as space: "He is about half an hour behind us." The word "metaphor" itself comes from a Greek root meaning "to carry". While the first two principles change existing words, this third serves to introduce new words into the language, which may then transform differently from their originators. Another example of analogy is grammatical analogy, by which a word which sounds as if it follows a certain acceptable grammatical form is developed according to that form. Deutscher gives as example the Beatles' neologism "grotty" from the word "grotesque". As the word became popular and the origin obscure, speakers analogized from "bloody" and "blood", "muddy" and "mud", et cetera, to form "grot". Analogy, then, restores order to an otherwise chaotic language, often eliminating "irregulars" in the language's syntax.

So these are the three principles behind Deutscher's theory. However, although they are interesting in themselves, the book gets better when its author applies them. At one point, the principles are used to explain the origin of the Semitic verb system, whose base forms consist of exactly three consonants. In one of my favorite sequences, Deutscher takes authors who complain about the "destruction of the English Language" since a particular time period, then looks at authors echoing similar complaints from that period. This goes back from modern literary critics to Samuel Johnson in the Queen Anne period! Far from being a dry scientific work, the book contains color and spirit. And, of course, it is many times better than any attempt of mine to describe it here.

So read it.

Citation: Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language. New York: Owl Books, 2005.

*Surprising, I am told, to those outside of the lingustic field. Oh well. Thank you, Excalibre.

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