The author calls language an "uninvented invention". This highly engaging, witty book is an attempt to uncover at least some of the secrets of language and to dismantle the stated paradox. He explains the meaning of `structure', argues that the present is the key to the past & explains why languages do not remain static. By drawing on recent discoveries in linguistics, he explores the forces of destruction, creation and the innate structure of language. It is revealed that the source of grammatical elements like case markers, pre- & post-positions and tense markers is the mundane words like inter alia `hand' and `go'.
Chapter One: Castles In The Air, takes a close look at the structure of language, whilst the following chapter: Perpetual Motion, demonstrates linguistic development and change with particular reference to English, German, French and the Indo-European
language family as a whole. Chapter Three: Forces Of Destruction, is a further investigation of how and why changes in sound and meaning take place, with many examples from Indo-European.
Chapter Four examines interesting verbs like "to have/to hold" and the concepts of space & time in linguistic expression. All languages use spatial terms to describe temporal relations, revealing that space-time is deeply entrenched in human cognition. A metaphor is a way of describing something by comparing it to something else, and is an indispensable element in thought-processing. The stream of metaphors flowing through language moves from the concrete to the abstract. Language consists of layer upon layer of metaphors that are as common in plain conversation as in sublime poetics.
Chapter Five: Forces Of Creation, is a discussion of how new words and structures arise, how meanings change and the multiple ways in which languages are enriched by these developments. It was interesting to learn, for example that the conjunction `but' derives from Old English `be-utan' ("by the outside").
Chapter Six looks at the need for order in languages and contains lots of interesting information on the intricate Semitic
verbal system. In essence, the effects of erosion interact with the mind's craving for order. There is thus a constant search for regular patterns and spontaneous analogical innovations arise. This is based on erosion + expressiveness and erosion + analogy.
The final chapter brings it all together and includes detailed discussions of the common sources out of which possessives, quantifiers, plural markers & articles may develop, the various interactions of verbs & nouns, and the nuances of action like tenses (past, present, future, continues & completed), and modality (should, ought, etc.). Adverbs and subordinate clauses are also discussed.
In the Epilogue, Deutscher revisits the mind's desire for order and the fact that innovation is based on a principle of recycling. He also discusses the movement towards simplification in the word structure of the Indo-European languages over thousands of years in terms of cyclical & linear time. Proto Indo-European had eight cases for nouns in the singular, dual & plural while the modern daughter languages have few left and there is a marked decline in the fusion of words.
This highly entertaining read is accessible to the non-linguist and explains many fascinating features of language and its structure. There are five appendices, copious notes, a bibliography and glossary of terms. The book concludes with an index. The text is enhanced by figures, illustrations and photographs, including an aerial view of the ruins of & an artist's impression of Hattusa in its heyday plus portraits of the Brothers Grimm and Sir William Jones
who discovered the relationship of Sanskrit to Greek & Latin.
Appendix A provides more info on the flipping of word categories with reference to the word `go' which functions both as a verb and an auxiliary marking the future tense. Appendix B revisits the role of laryngeal consonants in the Semitic languages that changed the vowels I and U in their vicinity into A and the consequences of the phenomenon.
The next appendix elaborates on the complicated Semitic verbal templates with reference to how reflexives, intensives, causatives, passives & passive reflexive forms originated. Appendix D looks at how the ambiguity of pronouns as to referent may be solved; for example, by harnessing the emphatic `self' to function as a reflexive.
The final appendix, The Turkish Mirror, deals with the convergence of all languages into two opposing word-order camps. Joseph Greenberg
made this discovery in the 1960s. The word-order arrangement results from the positioning of one particular couple, the verb and the object. The early choice between VO or OV determines whether pre- or postpositions will be employed and ripples throughout the entire structure of a language to determine, amongst others, the possessive construction where the two nouns arrange themselves to correspond with pre- or post-positions.
I also recommend On the Origin of Languages
& A Guide to the World's Languages
by Merritt Ruhlen, A Language History of the World
by Nicholas Ostler and the work of that great pioneer of language classification, Professor Joseph Greenberg, especially Language Universals
& Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family