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Guy Deutscher


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Language is paradoxical. It is so marvellously structured that it gives the impression of being intelligently designed, and indeed in earlier times it was often held to be the outcome of divine inspiration. Since the Enlightenment there has been endless debate about how language might have arisen naturally but until recently most of this was empty speculation. But recent discoveries in linguistics have begun to provide a basis for understanding this hitherto mysterious process.

There is an obvious analogy here with Darwinian evolution in biology, with echoes of Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. But I think the parallel with geological change is probably closer. In reading Deutscher's book I was constantly put in mind of descriptions of how mountains arise from shifting tectonic plates and then erode under the action of wind and rain, and of how sedimentary rocks contain layers that preserve the relics of earlier conditions. Indeed, although he does not allude to this analogy explicitly he frequently refers to "erosion" in describing the processes of linguistic change.

"Erosion" in this context is of course a metaphor, and Deutscher has a whole chapter on metaphor and language. He claims that all language is metaphorical, being made of a "reef of dead metaphors". I was particularly struck by this because I encountered the same idea some sixty years ago, in a book by Owen Barfield, and I have never been able to forget it. It is one of those illuminating notions that alter how you think about a whole range of things.

Discussion of Chomsky's theory of innate grammar, an inbuilt tendency to construct language, is bound to come up in a book of this kind, but it is not what really interests Deutscher, although he acknowledges that the question of innateness underlies his subject. He is more concerned with a rather later stage in the process: once words exist in a simple form, how does complex linguistic structure arise and how does it develop and change?

This is definitely an evidence-based approach to the subject; Deutscher is conscientious in providing evidence for his theories and when he indulges in speculation he signals the fact. He does not shrink from some quite detailed argument at times, notably in connection with the semitic languages, but his touch is mostly light with plenty of humour. He draws on an impressively large range of languages, both ancient and modern, to illustrate his thesis, but no specialized knowledge is required from the reader and a glossary provides explanations of grammatical and linguistic terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, now that formal teaching of English grammar has been largely abandoned in schools.

There seems to be a reluctance on the part of many linguists to accept that languages ever really deteriorate. Deutscher is no exception here, and in an amusing section he traces lamentations about deterioration in history as far back as Cicero. He does acknowledge that there seem to be some long-term trends, such as the loss of complex grammatical forms, and he suggests, tentatively, that these may be linked with the emergence of large social groups. In any case, the change is not in only one direction; there has been an increase in the use of complex subordinate clauses in recent centuries.

This is an excellent introduction to modern thinking about language that manages to be both erudite and readable.

26 September 2005

%T The Unfolding of Language
%A Deutscher, Guy
%I William Heinemann
%C London
%D 2005
%G ISBN 0-43401-135-5
%P 360 pp
%K linguistics

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