Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Unfolding of Language and The Power of Babel

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2005

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I’d received a copy of Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. A question I kept coming back to as I read it was, “Why was this book written, when John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel is already out there?” Both are books about linguistics, intended for a nonlinguist audience, and appear to cover much of the same ground. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can see the differences more clearly.

PB is a collection of essays on various aspects of language, including language genesis, language death, language contact, and especially language variation. (“Dialects are all there is” approaches the status of a mantra in this book.) Along the way, it also gets into questions such as, How do languages such as Chinese come to use pitch to carry different meanings?, and Why are some languages specially suited for differentiating excruciatingly subtle shades of meaning (e.g., the vs. that), while other languages get along just fine without differentiating them? Although UL gets into many of the same topics, it discusses them always with an eye toward posing or answering one unifying question: How do languages develop into such complex, intricate systems when (first of all) there were no language-designing committees or deities to design them, and (second) throughout history, all we see evidence of is language decay?

Both books are interesting, but PB is the one I’d recommend to someone as their first taste of linguistics. I’d save UL for someone who already had something of an interest in the subject, since there are a few stretches in there that only an already-existing interest will get you through. However, PB‘s more engaging tone comes at a price: As one reviewer complained, McWhorter’s frequent use of 1990s-era pop-culture references will have the effect of dating the book rather quickly. For example, McWhorter refers to Monica Lewinsky and episodes of Friends. (I had to get my wife to explain an allusion to Ross and Rachel.) He even refers to “Charlie Brown heads of language”–a reference that makes sense in context, but only for as long as readers are still familiar with Charlie Brown. UL avoids this problem, but at the expense of being a dryer read than PB. Not terribly dry, but definitely not as conversational as what you get in PB. Deutscher seems to realize this problem, but his attempts to fix it sometimes fall flat.

Deutscher presents the main question in the first two chapters, and highlights the aspect of it that intrigued him in his youth: How did all the different inflectional endings in Latin came into being in the first place, especially since they’ve been steadily disappearing during the evolution of Latin into the modern Romance languages? His answer, previewed at the end of chapter 2, is that the same forces (or more specifically, the same three forces) that create the complex and useful structures of language are the forces that destroy them, in an unending cycle.

The first of these forces is erosion, covered in chapter 3, which discusses the discovery of Proto-Indo-European and the history of English. It’s clearly written, and well-suited to an audience of nonspecialists. My only complaint here is two places where Deutscher tries to make the presentation more interesting by putting ideas in the form of parables. Two principal kinds of phonetic change are explained in stories about “The Elders of Idleford” and the villagers of “Santa Siesta,” which I found tiresome, especially when the shorthand terms “Elders of Idleford” and “Santa Siesta” were used throughout the rest of the book to refer to these kinds of changes.

The next force is the desire of speakers to find ever newer and more interesting ways to express ideas, especially those that are used a lot. But gradually, even the most vivid turns of phrase lose their effect. This topic is covered in chapters 4 and 5. In chapter 4, Deutscher argues that all words for abstract concepts in language are created via metaphoric use of words denoting concrete objects or physical actions. As the metaphors die, the language gains not only words for abstract concepts, but also functional words or particles such as tense markers, prepositions (or postpositions), etc. This chapter goes beyond the Indo-European examples of chapter 2, showing how the same kind of metaphors arise in many different languages. The examples from various languages are well chosen, and on the whole the chapter makes a strong case. I’m unconvinced, however, that it would be impossible to create words for abstract concepts without metaphor. Very inconvenient, yes, and maybe enough so that for all practical purposes it’s impossible, but I can still imagine coining a completely new word to refer to the set of all things that have such-and-such a property.

In chapter 5, Deutscher elaborates on the progression from metaphor to ordinary rules of grammar, and it is in this chapter that his attempt to present a lot of material in an informal, reader-friendly way falls its flattest. The entire chapter is presented in the form of a fictional dialogue between an invited speaker and audience members at a conference on the state of the English language. The audience members always ask just the right questions, fail to understand at just the right times so that the speaker can explain further, etc. For example, the speaker talks about a hypothetical language that conjugates the verb for ‘love’ as follows: mwa jem ‘I love,’ twa tem ‘you love’… The cooperative audience member says, “It looks like Turkish to me.” And now the speaker, to the amazement of everyone except the readers of the book, reveals that the language is actually French: moi, j’aime ‘I love,’ toi, tu aimes ‘you love’… This is the chapter that will lose the indifferent reader, as the artificiality of the dialogue becomes more and more obvious. Part of the dialogue is even offloaded into an appendix, but there is still 20+ pages of it to get through.

Things pick up again in chapter 6, which discusses analogy, the third in Deutscher’s triad of language-shaping forces. Analogy is the process by which semi-regular patterns (some of them truly governed by rules, some just accidental) are extended and regularized. (Backformation is one example of analogy.) This is the most interesting chapter in the book: In an extended example, Deutscher shows how the process of analogy could have worked to create as complex a system as the verbal inflections of Semitic verbs, which I haven’t seen done anywhere else. I’m sure the topic of analogy and Semitic verbs has been written about in journals and scholarly books, but it’s not in PB or other popular linguistic works I know of, or even in textbooks that I’ve seen. Minor complaint: choosing a hypothetical Semitic verb root s_n_g and translating it as “to snog.” I don’t think the verb snog will last too long in English, and this choice will only serve to date the book.

The final chapter gives a very speculative overview of how the three processes that have been discussed at length earlier might have interacted to take language from what Deutscher refers to as a “me, Tarzan” stage of prehistory to the much more complex and nuanced stages seen in historically attested languages. This part was interesting, but as one reviewer on Amazon pointed out, it’s hard to tell which ideas are pretty well accepted among linguists, and which are Deutscher’s own opinions.

Overall (out of five stars):

UL: ***1/2
PB: ****1/2

2 Responses to “The Unfolding of Language and The Power of Babel

  1. !|!u said

    The Elders of Idleford was not something he made up. He said it was made by brothers Grimm. You are the second reviewer to complain and miss this.

  2. […] department at Gotham Books. And to make the existing record clear, I also received free copies of The Unfolding of Language and Forbidden Words, as noted in the reviews I wrote. I also got Grammar Girl’s first book […]

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