Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Guy Deutscher's "The Unfolding of Language": Book Review

I read this on bus and plane rides recently, and wondered if I'd fall asleep despite its concentration on an issue that intrigued me: how do languages evolve? Do we decide what words fade and which expressions survive? And, are languages doomed to decay? Word-mavens bemoaning the idiocy of our current state of English, or any other language, compared to the glories of past prose and universal literacy and elegant wit will be disappointed. Deutscher begins with a string of citations from the past, with a mandarin amidst his philistine generation hearkening back to a Golden Age now irrevocably vanished.

Language, he assures us, will always morph on two principles: economy and expressiveness. In speaking, we tend to be lazy. Our mouths move in intricate fashion to shape sounds. We tend to take shortcuts. Over time, endings erode and prefixes rot. Their residue collapses into the center of words. Meanings compress into the core. This, in time, frustrates us even as we inadvertently contribute to language change by our collective action, as users slowly adopt to what individuals, seeking order, impose in our quest for logical, systematic syntax. What appears to horrified schoolmarms as regression to the inarticulate is, Deutscher insists, the course every language must and has and will take. We seek the easy way out in speech.

But, we also turn restless. Unhappy with worn-out expressions, we invent new ones. Analogies captivate us and we want fresh ways to communicate what matters to us. So, we build up new endings, invent new verbs, add new prefixes, and twist and turn meanings and phrases into vibrant, contradictory, or plain attention-getting forms. For instance, he cites "wicked" as used by old ladies coming out of a theatre to comment on the performance; this is contrasted with two teenaged girls using "wicked." The first pair mean that the entertainment was "bad" or "evil" or "immoral." The second pair convey their delight in its imaginative qualities, and give a positive spin to the word. In the course of a few decades, we can witness, he shows, language evolving as we listen. No one person controls this, but we adapt to the innovative gradually, and the change happens so gradually that for a while (as with many familiar usages) we will understand both meanings. In a century, we can predict, "wicked" will have reversed what we today regard as its primary definition.

The roots of these principles are buried in our minds, our perceptions, and predate by arguably hundreds of thousands of years our few recorded instances of how we talk and write. These, being so recent, offer fewer clues than many of us imagine; our language may have been around 100,000-40,000 years ago and itself rests on the way we separate actions from objects, and thus nouns from verbs, static from (potentially) dynamic entities, and what can change vs. what endures. Primates and some lower-level animals share these abilities of cognition, and out of this understanding, Deutscher explains with immensely learned, marvelously diverse, if often recondite examples, we create sounds to match what exists in our minds, our world, and our emotions and activities-- a tremendous wealth of symbolic and practical power.

When I read John McWhorter's "The Power of Babel" a few years ago (also reviewed by me on Amazon), he explained that languages decline from an overly complicated order into a simpler one, rather than-- as we'd expect-- vice versa. McWhorter's book complements Deutscher's. McWhorter wished to defend language against critics bemoaning its death throes, and supported the vigor of language shifts. Still, I had wanted to find out more about why the earlier stages of language were so declined and conjugated and structured so rigidly, systematically, and (to me) overwhelmingly.

Deutscher offers a solution, at least as much as we can know from the comparatively brief information from a few thousand at best out of probably at least a hundred thousand years of language. "A reef of dead metaphors" becomes his guiding metaphor!
We compress and erode language by our wish to economize. The rich detritus itself generates material to build upon the rubble and create structures that rise, like an ancient city stratified, ruins leading to higher ground and material to build syntactical patterns and form neologisms and extend analogies and spin off metaphors anew. Even the dense, rigid Semitic languages that we can glimpse from 5000 years ago themselves may have grown from eroded roots, and this process of growth and compression, rising and falling, may be ingrained in the way we manufacture language.

The book addresses a general reader, but is not easy reading. He does not pander to a reader, yet he also takes pains to find hundreds of examples from our daily patterns of communication to support his scholarship. He popularizes his findings from many linguists (see his footnotes that carefully record his energies and his qualifications-- he draws upon a dizzying range of studies in dozens of languages) This etymological excursion proves bracing. Parts-- as he warns in one later chapter fairly-- can be rather eye-glazing. Linguistics can be daunting. Yet, its laws and controversies and jargon, as with any science, reward careful investigation.

Illustrations scatter throughout, many rather superfluous such as clip art engravings of historical figures. However, the family trees of languages and the maps of Indo-European and Semitic language groups are drawn elegantly by hand and enhance the volume. I would have liked more explanation of why Mark Twain's famous complaint about women being neuter and turnips being feminine in German might have been based in structural categories; Deutscher dismisses much of an investigation into this as beyond the historical record early on but in a later chapter raises the point again only to repeat that most languages have such categories rooted in originally if irretrievably logical earlier groupings that already, by the time writing came along to document such usages, had altered beyond the norm. Also, the manner in which verbs emerge from prehistoric, non-grammatical utterances of objects and things alone appeared too hazy. I realize these are both topics whose origins rest thousands of years before any records, and they may be beyond our capacity to fully explain. Still, I wish more attention had been given these elusive situations!

This serious, yet engaging, book demands attention, and Deutscher exerts considerable effort in making linguistic erudition understandable. This may be suited more for time (as my commutes) when you can get lost in its pages for hours at a time. After reading it, you will understand how metaphor and analogy embed themselves in so many more profound ways than the obvious. Language, as Deutscher lovingly lists, drifts and crashes and coalesces over centuries, and we all, unintentionally, contribute to its evolution in our innate drive towards mental acuity through elegant expression-- combined with our tongue's own tendency towards sloth!

(Amazon 10-9-09. See also his follow-up Through the Language Glass: How Our Culture Twists Our Mother Tongue in longer form reviewed by me at PopMatters and in shorter at Amazon in Sept. 2010.)

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