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The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention Paperback – 2 May 2006


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Product details

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Owl Books (NY); Reprint edition (2 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080124
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 2.5 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,963,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

If I told you how it works, you wouldn't buy the book...fascinating...it will stretch your mind -- Independent on Sunday --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

'Enthralling' A.S. Byatt

A brilliant and original exploration of how languages evolve and have evolved, comparable to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct in its accessibility, wit and ambition.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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48 of 48 people found the following review helpful By J. Penton on 27 Sep 2009
Format: Paperback
I have been sporadically dipping into the 'linguistics for laypeople' market for the last few years, but in this book I think I have found precisely what I have been looking for.

The book uses a very simple idea to explain the evolution of language; analogy (working out 'rules' from other words), expressiveness (emphasis etc) and economy (plain laziness). He uses these rules to explain almost every facet of human communication, and will hopefully convert many grammar pedants! If there is a moral to this story, it is that language is defined by the people who use it, not purely by convention and what has come before. Language is not deteriorating as has been the lament of many scholars past and present, it is evolving and changing, though the forces of destruction are more apparent than those of creation!

As a learner of Korean and Chinese, reading this book has given me knew insight on these languages' use of certain sentence orders, constant use, tone use and irregularities in conjugations etc, which I find absolutely fascinating and has made me realise that learning a language is not like hacking into a dark and random jungle armed only with a blunt penknife, but that there is rhyme and reason behind everything if only you stop to look!

The only part of this book I felt somewhat uneasy reading was the final chapter, where he traces a possible path from the 'man throw spear' stage of language to the verbosity of modern speech. Since it deals with pre-historical development, it is wild conjecture; though to be fair to Deutscher he does include a disclaimer before the chapter!

Not only is the content fascinating, the presentation of the book and the style of language are also laudable.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By C. Young on 24 Jan 2009
Format: Paperback
If nobody actually invented it, how could the bewildering variety, rich complexity and sheer expressiveness of human language 'mankind's greatest invention' have ever come about? Guy Deutscher takes us through an entertaining and plausible history of language's origins, explaining how the intricacy of for example Latin and Old English grammar could have emerged through a natural process of expressiveness and metaphor (creatively adding new words to phrases), analogy (ordering random variance into meaningful rules) and erosion (lazy speaking, losing endings and shortening words). He even explains how the weird and wonderful Semitic verb structure (where Hebrew and Arabic are forever united in parallel linguistic complexity) could have arisen. The first three quarters of the book reads like a novel, charting the exciting history of linguistics as well as language theory itself, only slowing in the final section where the author attempts to explain the strange source of subordinate clauses, a difficult area even for dedicated linguists to decipher. The ending, too, seems unexpectedly abrupt. If language is a flux of creation and destruction, why has there been a marked tendency in modern languages towards grammatical simplification with the case endings of Latin and Old English `rubbed off' in their modern counterparts? Is literacy the culprit? There are some quite interesting theories around but unfortunately they are skipped over here, leaving the reader with many questions unanswered. Nonetheless, this is still a cracking page-turning introduction to a fascinating area and not to be missed if you have any interest in the mysteries of language.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Pieter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on 18 July 2005
Format: Hardcover
The author calls language an "uninvented invention". This very engaging book is an attempt to uncover at least some of the secrets of language and to dismantle the stated paradox. By drawing on recent discoveries in linguistics, Deutscher explores the elusive forces of creation, change and the innate structure of language. In addition, he investigates the way that the elaborate conventions of communication develop in human society. This cultural evolution means the emergence of behavioural codes that are passed on from generation to generation.
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 and time in linguistic expression.
Chapter Five: Forces Of Creation, is a discussion of how new words and structures arise, how meanings change and how languages are enriched by these developments. Chapter Six looks at the need for order in languages and contains lots of interesting information on the Semitic family and its intricate 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.
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