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The Unfolding Of Language [Paperback]

Guy Deutscher
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jun 2006

'Language is mankind's greatest invention - except of course, that it was never invented.' So begins Guy Deutscher's fascinating investigation into the evolution of language. No one believes that the Roman Senate sat down one day to design the complex system that is Latin grammar, and few believe, these days, in the literal truth of the story of the Tower of Babel. But then how did there come to be so many languages, and of such elaborate design? If we started off with rudimentary utterances on the level of 'man throw spear', how did we end up with sophisticated grammars, enormous vocabularies, and intricately nuanced shades of meaning?

Drawing on recent, groundbreaking discoveries in modern linguistics, Deutscher exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication. Along the way, we learn why German maidens are neuter while German turnips are female, why we have feet not foots, and how great changes in pronunciation may result from simple laziness...

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The Unfolding Of Language + Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages + The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (1 Jun 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099460254
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099460251
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 19.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 47,623 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"'Highly original... Brilliant... How did...regular and complex languages come to exist? Deutscher's chosen task is to unravel [a] paradox, and he does so brilliantly, witholding the secret with great skill. If I told you how it works, you wouldn't buy the book. Both clever and convincing... this book will stretch your mind' Independent on Sunday"

"'He really ought to be anyone who persists in complaining that the English language is going to the dogs...Interesting and substantial' Sunday Telegraph"

"'Powerful and thrilling' Spectator"

"'I was enthralled by Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language, a history of how words came to take the forms they do, and therefore a history of the forms of the human mind.'" (A.S. Byatt in the Guardian 'Books of the Year)

"Fascinating... Any curious reader...will find something worth knowing in The Unfolding of Language'" (Boston Globe)

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.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
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
4.0 out of 5 stars The secret life of languages 24 Jan 2009
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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111 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Analysing the uninvented invention 18 July 2005
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Not on the Kindle
Great book but unfortunately it has lots of tables and diagrams which are unreadable on a Kindle. A real shame.
Published 25 days ago by MKS123
5.0 out of 5 stars Pedants Beware
This book is informative, interesting and superbly written. The author's depth of knowledge is astounding and he manages to convey the sometimes difficult, and dry, concepts in an... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Hominid
5.0 out of 5 stars Endlessly fascinating book.
It arrived promptly and is as it was described. It's a great purchase and I'm pleased with the overall buying experience.
Published 3 months ago by J. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific read.
I wrote a longer review on GoodReads, where everybody seems to love the book.
The book is not hung up on the Chomskyite approach, and is deeper than Pinker's two books on... Read more
Published 8 months ago by airesearcher
5.0 out of 5 stars accessible explanation of how languages have evolved
Well written, with lots of examples from languages, dead and alive, all over the world.
Often humerous. Much scholarship, butpresented in a clear, understandable way.
Published 8 months ago by Hazel Davies
5.0 out of 5 stars A throughly interesting read.
I got this book because i wanted to find out more about how languages changes over time.

Iv throughly enjoyed this book and I recommend this to anyone whos interested in... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Laura
3.0 out of 5 stars The Unfolding Of Language by Guy Deutscher
I'm sure the author started out with good intentions, but it is difficult to decide whether this book is for the casual reader or as a primer for those who may be considering... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Doug Jay
5.0 out of 5 stars How languages change
Was there a golden age of language, which has sadly declined to our current language? Certainly the linguists of the 18th Century looking at the complex synthetic grammars of... Read more
Published 8 months ago by autodidact
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment
This book is full of interesting facts and speculations about the development of language. But I personally found it very difficult to read because of the style in which it is... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Hector
4.0 out of 5 stars On the Origins of Speaking
I publish on this subject. I agree with most of his findings, but it reviews the state of play rather than providing anything new. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Lord Walsingham
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