Thursday, September 8, 2011

Musings: The Unfolding of Language

The Unfolding of Language book cover
Like many readers, I have a fascination with language itself.  How was it created?  How has it changed?  Why is there so much structure?  Why are some aspects so unstructured?  How are new words added and old words removed?  How were words formed in the first place?  It's so interesting!

Some years ago, I read a blog post that mentioned a book by Guy Deutscher with the fantastic title The Unfolding of Language:  An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, and immediately I went out and got the book for myself.  And then let it sit on my shelf, unread, for quite a while.

But I was recently motivated to pick it up and it does not disappoint!  Really, the formation of language and the way it's evolved over the centuries is so, so interesting.  For example, did you know that even though the word "I" has been spelled the same way for years and years and years and years, the pronunciation has changed drastically?  It used to be pronounced "Itch" (much closer to German).  And then it became "ee," and then "eh," and then FINALLY only in the 18th century did it start being pronounced the way we pronounce it today.  But it has been spelled the same way since the 14th century.

This fact inevitably leads Deutscher to point out that, "When reading Jane Austen or George Eliot, for example, one is tempted to assume that their characters sounded just like actors in BBC costume dramas.  The reality was rather different however."  Obliged was pronounced "obleeged," daughters were "darters," Rome was "Room," gold was "goold," and china (horribly) was "chayney."  And it's because English spelling has stayed the same while pronunciation has gone gallivanting about doing whatever it wants that English spelling makes no sense.  If that doesn't strike you as a completely awesome fact to randomly bring up in dinnertime conversation, I don't know what will.

I think one of my favorite things about Deutscher's writing is how utterly dramatic he is when referring to language's evolution.  For example:
The devastation that erosion metes out is perhaps most conspicuous with case systems, which of all monumental structures seem to be most vulnerable... So not much more than a millennium after Cicero, the majestic Latin case system had been entirely wiped out of existence.  An even earlier casualty was the case system in the Germanic branch of Indo-European...But not even this reduced system succeeded in standing up to the onslaughts of erosion for very long, as soon after the tenth century, the final syllables were weakened and the whole edifice started to collapse.  By the fifteenth century, the system was in tatters and only the forms ending with an s remained in any way distinct...It is this depleted system that has survived...
The Unfolding of Language cover
Really, one would think Deutscher was talking about the utter and complete extinction of the dinosaurs, rather than Latin losing the vocative case ending (which, in my opinion, was completely worthy of extinction).  He gets so excited by and passionate about language- hilariously so- that one can't help but be excited with him.

And that's just one aspect of language that Deutscher covers in his book.  He also talks about metaphors and the propensity of people to use ever-bigger and more extreme words to describe things, thus causing these words ("awesome" springs to mind as a modern-day example) to lose their extreme and highly descriptive status.  You know what word started out as meaning very extreme?  How about the word "no"?  Yup.  You had to be pretty against something in the tenth century to use no in a sentence.  And now, well, "no means no."

The Unfolding of Language coverThere are times when this book is very dry and focused on structure.  Deutscher spends a lot of time explaining how Semitic languages became so highly structured.  He also has a quirky writing style, alluded to a bit above, that can get a little trying.  But this book is littered with so many etymological gold mines that I was engaged the whole way through, and have already started telling all my friends interesting facts like, "Did you know that the word repent used to mean EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it does now?  I'm serious!  It did!"  So for that alone, the book is well worth reading or scanning.  It gives you a new-found appreciation for language and the ability we all have to share complex thoughts with each other, even as language evolves and word meanings change all around us.


  1. Ohhh: I know you already mentioned this to me, but your post just made me realise I need to read it stat! I love the kind of nonficiton that leaves me spouting random facts to friends and family. ;D

  2. This one sounds fascinating!

    I went to an RSC performance of Macbeth last night - language has certainly evolved over the centuries and continues to evolve, but Shakespeare's meaning is still crystal clear.

    And I agree with you about Latin!

  3. This does sound absolutely fascinating. And I will probably bring up the history of "I" as soon as possible. :)

  4. This one sounds a lot better than the book that I read, for a lot of different reasons. I would have to bet that having all those chunks of information to chew on would probably make all the drier bits more tantalizing as well. The book sounds like it was a lot of fun and like something that I might not mind! Glad to hear that you did so well with it, and great review!

  5. This is something I would probably like, too. I will have to look into it!

  6. That sound you hear is the sound of my scribbling this title onto my TBR list. Thanks!

  7. Wow, this sounds great, even with the dry parts! And what an excellent point about us thinking everyone talked like BBC productions! And wow - the bit about China! How interesting!

  8. Hurray! I've had this on my amazon wishlist as a possibility for ages, but now I really want to read it.

    I'm totally bummed about the 'goold' thing, though.

  9. Eva - Yes, it's so fun! I love it, too.

    Tracy - It's so interesting how MUCH it's evolved since then, too, right? I don't think 500 years is THAT much to have changed language so completely, but Shakespeare is quite difficult to understand sometimes... I don't know if I would agree with you that his meaning is always crystal-clear ;-)

    Trisha - Haha, I have already told Eva, Heather and three school friends that one!

    Zibilee - Yes, the drier chunks are QUITE dry, in my opinion, but I just skimmed those and went back to the fun facts.

    Kailana - I think you would, so hopefully you can find it. And read it ;-)

    Buried in Print - Yay! So glad I motivated you.

    rhapsody - I know, right? Sounds horrible! And obleeged? That one hurts my head a bit. I wonder how many other words I imagine Mr. Darcy saying differently...

    Alice - Oh, awesome! I think it's worth the investment, just for conversational value (and the cover). And I agree- goold is a horrible way of pronouncing the word, but at least we've moved on to better things.

  10. I absolutely love language books and don't know how I missed this one! I'll be adding it to my wish list right now.

  11. I think I might get bogged down in the structural bits of this one at times, but overall it sounds fascinating!

  12. This sounds like a really fantastic book! Adding it to the wish list now :)

  13. I can't decide if this book would intrigue me or frustratingly blow my mind.

  14. I can't take the credit for introducing you to this book but you can for me! It's on hold right now for me at my library. It sounds fabulous. I love books like this.

  15. I read it over the weekend and while yes, bits of it were really dry, it was also immensely readable. I think his defense of the word "gonna" is what struck me the most - at least that's what's stayed with me. Really interesting, the destruction and construction of language he posits.


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