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50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consistent, insightful, brilliantly written and a joy to read
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...
Published on 27 Sept. 2009 by J. Penton

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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 linguistics as a subject worthy of serious study. In the latter case the book will certainly facilitate the decision making process as the content oscillates between clarity and mind-numbing...
Published 18 months ago by Doug Jay


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50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consistent, insightful, brilliantly written and a joy to read, 27 Sept. 2009
By 
J. Penton - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (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. It is accessible without ever being patronising, and the purpose of the chapters are always clearly explained and at the end tied into the overall theme of the book, i.e. the three drivers of human language mentioned above. For this the author deserves high praise as it helps readers through some somewhat heavy topics!

Overall, this is an absolutely fantastic book on linguistics, accessible to the interested laymen, though it may not hold a purely casual reader. By far the best book I have read on the subject so far, and it has spurred me to read many more!
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The secret life of languages, 24 Jan. 2009
This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (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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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Analysing the uninvented invention, 18 July 2005
By 
Peter Uys "Toypom" (Sandton) - See all my reviews
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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.
The final chapter brings it all together and includes detailed discussions of possessives, quantifiers, plural markers, articles and the various interactions of verbs and nouns. 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.
I also recommend On The Origin Of Languages by Merritt Ruhlen, How To Kill A Dragon by Calvert Watkins, and the work of that great pioneer of language classification, Professor Joseph Greenberg.
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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
By 
Peter Uys "Toypom" (Sandton) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)   
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating for linguists and non-linguists alike, 6 May 2010
By 
R. WEST-SOLEY "Rich West-Soley" (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (Paperback)
A brilliantly readable and accessible look at some of the forces that shape language, particularly the destructive ones that actually seem quite creative on the face of it. Guy Deutscher writes in a light, easy manner, and you find yourself covering some complex issues without even realising it as you enjoy the read.

He takes examples from all sorts of sources, travelling from reconstructed Proto-Indo-European to the Semitic Languages and to Turkish, with lots of stops on the way to illustrate the his points. The chapters covering Indo-European are actually a really nice, concise introduction to language reconstruction for anyone new to the topic, and Guy's style won't break your head while you get used to the heady concepts.

The chapter on the Semitic consonantal root is particularly fascinating and clearly put across, and the mock lecture transcript of the chapter on erosion is good fun.

All in all, a great, informative read, which doubles as pop science book and a natty intro to some big concepts in language study too.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely wonderful!, 8 April 2010
By 
ellis (South Wales, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (Paperback)
Miffed at how languages always seem to be losing inflection? Amazed at the grace and beauty of the Classical languages? Worried that all grammatical structures will break down catastrophically leaving us all grunting on all fours? Read this book and your mind will be put at ease. Guy Deutscher in an amusing style, which I'll admit does grate a bit by the end, explains the ongoing battle between economy and expression and how these processes are responsible not only for the creation, but also for the destruction of grammatical structures.

For any novice who wants an introduction to morphology, this is the book for you! It'll open your mind, get you thinking, and it will open the door to more academic reading.

I read this book in a day and a half, I just couldn't put it down! A thoroughly fascinating read and I strongly recommend it to anyone!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazingly readable, 5 April 2011
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This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (Paperback)
It is a paradox that the vast majority of linguistics books are virtually unreadable, that books which attempt to describe the process of communication are usually good examples of how not to communicate. However, this is an exception. While dealing with some pretty difficult material, Deutscher manages to make his text interesting, accessible and amusing, with examples drawn from a wide range of languages from obscure Australian Aboriginal languages to Chinese, from Irish to Maori. The old maxim goes that if a book is easy to read, it was probably very difficult to write, and if it is difficult to read, it was probably easy to write. In this case, he has either written and rewritten this book obsessively until it is a model of clarity, or he is just sickeningly gifted. Either way, it is an excellent book, either for the intelligent layperson or for the linguist looking for an overview of the progress which has been made in areas like typology and grammaticalisation while the various Chomskyan models have tended to hog the limelight.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unfolding of Language, 10 Oct. 2009
By 
G. W. Davies (Audlem, UK) - See all my reviews
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As a retired English teacher, I found this book answered all those questions that have flashed through the mind over the years about how language developed.It is clearly and concisely written and keeps the reader's interest by the well planned order in which it tackles this huge question taking the reader gently' step by step' on the discovery. It is brilliantly written.

An interesting side-effect of reding this book is that I'm much more tolerant of modern, modish, fashionable innovations in English than I previously was (I guess a probable weakness in most English teachers!) seeing change now as inevitable; the change will either last or it won't (e.g. the increasing and completely incorrect use of the word 'infamous' for 'famous' - the urge of many/most,for effect,to use a longer word than the simple original - even if it's wrong! I've heard this twice on BBC reports, "...celebrations of the infamous Battle of Trafalgar" being one example). In the meantime, I've realised there are more important things in life to get hot under the collar about.

Geraint Davies
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Erudite, accessible and then I hit the wall, 26 Sept. 2011
By 
M (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (Paperback)
As a casual frequenter of books on language and languages I found this book instructive and entertaining. It is well written and I lapped up the first chapters hungrily. Deutscher (or de Troy, as he likens himself in one chapter) guides the reader through the process of erosion, compression and recombination of words that constantly shapes and reshapes our language. I loved it. And then halfway through the book, just as I reached the five steps that possibly led to the formation of the 3-consonant templates of the arabic languages I hit the wall and never quite recovered after that. I will cherish this book for giving me a wonderful insight into the processes at work in our language and I am in no dobt Guy Deutscher is a very gifted linguist. However I think I will skip learning Akkadian just for now.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and insightful, 23 April 2012
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This review is from: The Unfolding Of Language (Paperback)
I have really enjoyed the Unfolding of Language as it is a well written and stimulating book. It is easy to read and uses simple examples to advance the author's ideas. I was familiar with some of the concepts in the book beforehand which was what intrigued me to buy it, however there were still many fascinating examples and theories that I was unfamiliar with, which made it a rewarding read. As a fan of languages I found the book a wealth of information on the bizarre methods languages use to convey their meanings and how these might have come about originally.

I was however surprised by some obvious omission from the book, which left me feeling that Guy was searching for answers in the distant past when examples in living language were far more revealing.

A case in point is the change of p to f and f to h for which he uses the example of German "vater" compared to the Latin "pater". However far more frequent and varied changes occur in Welsh (and other celtic languages) as part of the everyday language. Welsh has a well developed system of mutations, namely soft, nasal and aspirant. The mutations may be sumarised as

normal->soft->aspirant

p->b->ph

t->d->th

c->g->ch

b->f->b
f->dd->d
g->w->g

etc. Where "dd" is pronounced as "th" in the english word "them" and "f" is pronounced as the english sound "v". This is a good example of Guy's softening of consonants.

So for the Welsh speaker the concept of Grimm's Law is enshrined in their language. As such I think it makes a better example then the Latin-German example and is a curious omission form the book.

In a later section of the book, Guy talks about the principle of erosion where consonants are removed over time to make the words easier to speak. Here again he makes a rather obvious omission. Scottish Gaelic has a peculiar spelling orthography which retains the old consonants long after their pronunciation has been lost. Take for example the word "leabhar" which means "book" and is similar in orthography to the Latin "liber" However the Gaelic pronunciation is "lyower", the "b" sound having been eroded by the surrounding vowels. Medial "bh" sounds are silent in Gaelic". This is not an isolated example in the language either. Examples include "adhaircean" [arkun] ="horns" ; "mathair" [ma-er] = mother. The list is endless.

Finally when talking about creating grammar from changes in pronunciation, again an obvious example in Scots Gaelic springs to mind.

The past tense was formed using the particle "do" as is "do buail mi" ="I struck". The "b" of "buail" was eroded because it was stuck between two vowels and so became "bh" [v]. "do bhuail mi". Eventually speakers stopped saying the "do" because the aspiration of the "b" to "bh" was sufficient to mark the past tense and in modern Gaelic "bhuail mi " is the past tense. However when the verb starts with a vowel (which can't be aspirated) the "do" remains. However the general rule of aspiration is still applied but in this case it is the "do" that aspirates to "dh" and the past tense of a verb beginning with a vowel is "dh'innis me" = "tell me".

Again these are examples from a living language where these changes occur dynamically on a daily basis. It seems strange that he does not mention these important examples and chooses to search in long dead languages for proof of the theories.

Having said all that I am still going to buy his other book on why language looks different to speakers of different languages. He really is an inspiring writer!
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The Unfolding Of Language
The Unfolding Of Language by Guy Deutscher (Paperback - 1 Jun. 2006)
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