Date: Mon, 12 Sep 2005 12:34:46 +0100 (BST) From: Kenny Smith Subject: The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
AUTHOR: Deutscher, Guy TITLE: The Unfolding of Language SUBTITLE: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Company (Metropolitan Books) YEAR: 2005
Kenny Smith, Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh
"The Unfolding of Language" provides a thoroughly readable, popular- science style discussion of the evolution of language. Deutscher's central thesis is that the same processes of destruction and creation which account for attested change in language can also provide an explanation for the origins of linguistic structure.
The book consists of a short introduction, seven main chapters, an epilogue, and five short appendices. References to the primary literature reside in a set of notes at the end of the book.
The introductory chapter, "This Marvellous Invention", presents the question which the rest of the book attempts to answer: How can we account for the origins of linguistic structure? Deutscher seeks to explain the structure of language as a consequence of cultural, rather than biological, evolution. The main feature of this approach is to assume uniformity of process: the most parsimonious assumption is that processes which result in the creation of linguistic structure in attested cases of language change are the same processes which created linguistic structure in the first place. Given this uniformitarian assumption, the bulk of the book (the first six chapters) are dedicated to an enjoyable introduction to language change, with the promise of a return to the question of language origins in chapter 7.
Chapter 1, "A Castle in the Air", provides some basic background on the structure of language (word order, hierarchical structure, systems for marking case, tense and so on), as well as some exceptions to this structure (irregular verbs, arbitrary gender systems). As throughout the book, lots of examples of various kinds of structure and irregularity are provided, from a wide range of languages, including a discussion of the verbal system of the Semitic languages, which reappears in later chapters.
Chapter 2, "Perpetual Motion", provides an introduction to processes of language change. The chapter begins with a broad look at language change in the Indo-European languages, with examples from English, French and German. Deutscher then moves on to briefly discuss the causes of language change (economy, expressiveness, analogy), setting the scene for the subsequent chapters which look at mechanisms of change in more detail.
Chapter 3, "The Forces of Destruction", one of the bulkier chapters, focuses on the role of individual preferences for economy as a cause of "destructive" language change. The chapter begins with a simple example of the way in which sound change can introduce irregularity into a regular paradigm, goes on to discuss Grimm's Law (a series of phonological erosions taking place in the Germanic branch of Indo-European), and continues with several pages of examples of the damage similar economy- motivated changes can wreak on different kinds of linguistic structure. There is then a section on semantic bleaching, described as the erosion of meaning. Finally, Deutscher describes some of the impressive accomplishments of 19th century linguists, achieved as a consequence of their conceptualisation of language change as a regular process, culminating in the spectacular confirmation of Saussure's hypothesis on the structure of Proto-Indo-European.
Chapter 4 moves on to consider the second cause of language change - the quest for expressiveness on the part of individual speakers. As suggested by its title, "A Reef of Dead Metaphors", the chapter focuses on metaphor as a means of achieving expressiveness and an engine of language change. A series of well-chosen examples guide the reader from rather obvious metaphorical usages through to "dead metaphors" buried in the history of words such as "barmy", "sarcastic", and the less glamorous "have". The chapter concludes with examples of common cross-linguistic patterns of metaphor, including the chain of metaphor from expressions for body parts to spatial terms to time to causation.
Chapter 5, "The Forces of Creation", signals a shift in focus from destructive change to change involving the creation of structure. In a departure from the format of the rest of the book, this chapter takes the form of a Socratic dialogue, in the guise of a session at the George Orwell Centenary Conference on the decline of the English language (Orwell apparently "could not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry" [p74]). Deutscher uses this format to present several cases in which gradual processes of phonological and semantic erosion result in the emergence of new grammatical markers for tense, person and case.
Chapter 6 introduces the third and final mechanism of language change - analogy. "Craving for Order" outlines the ways in which analogy-making on the part of language learners introduces a pressure for regular structure in language. The process of analogy is illustrated briefly with an example of back-formation (noun "grot" from adjective "grotty"), before Deutscher moves on to the role of analogy in the evolution of the Semitic verb. The Semitic verbal system (consonant-only root, combined with vowel templates specified for person, number, tense, aspect, etc) was introduced in Chapter 1 as the pinnacle of algebraic perfection in the "design" of linguistic systems. Here Deutscher demonstrates how such heights can be reached through an incremental series of changes involving several instances of analogy, as well as the familiar processes of erosion.
Chapter 7, the eponymous "The Unfolding of Language", finally returns to the question of the origins of linguistic structure. Deutscher sketches a scenario under which the processes of change outlined in earlier chapters can take us from a loosely structured protolanguage to a language featuring recursive hierarchical structure, syntactic categories, inflectional markers, pronouns, prepositions, and so on. As acknowledged by Deutscher, the precise steps he suggests are largely irrelevant to the central point: if we make the uniformitarian assumption that the processes operating in the present also operated in the past, we can plausibly account for the evolution of much of the structure of language purely in terms of such processes.
Finally, in the epilogue, Deutscher speculates on a possible future linguistics which seeks to unearth the relationship between social and linguistic structure. Starting from the observation that Indo-European languages seem to be on a steady trajectory towards morphological simplification, Deutscher suggests that aspects of modern society such as the increased need to communicate with strangers (favouring simplicity) and widespread literacy (fossilizing word boundaries) may block the cycle back, via fusion, to morphological complexity.
This is an extremely enjoyable book to read, with a solid strand of (rather scholarly) humour throughout. It is not just an entertaining read, however, tackling as it does some complex subject matter in a manner which is always enthusiastic, always engaging, and ultimately, always understandable. Deutscher seems to have a gift for missing stuff out - illustrative examples are stripped to their essential parts, needless complications are rapidly swept aside, lines which do not directly contribute to the main thrust of the argument are deferred to an appendix. As a consequence, this book flows merrily along, with the reader seldom becoming bogged down in unnecessary detail. The topics covered in chapters 1-5 may be fairly standard historical linguistics fare, but the wit and clarity of their exposition make this book worth a look for these alone.
Chapter 6, on the evolution of the striking verbal structure of Semitic languages, is a departure from the ordinary, and again skillfully handled. I must confess, however, that I had expected a chapter devoted solely to the process of change through analogy, illustrated using a range of examples from a variety of language - this is the successful formula used in the rest of the book. Deutscher takes an alternative tack with analogy, which is mainly illustrated in terms of its role in the evolution of the Semitic verb. Consequently, analogy felt a somewhat neglected process, lost against the complex background of Semitic verbal structure. A stand-alone chapter on analogy, followed up by the current chapter 6 as a complex test-case for the developing theory, might have been a safer option.
The chapters "This Marvellous Invention" (introduction) and "The Unfolding of Language" (chapter 7), where Deutscher develops his uniformitarian position and tackles the origins of linguistic structure, make the book. These chapters broaden the scope of the book beyond the traditional confines of historical linguistics to deal with a question which will, I imagine, excite the imaginations of a wide readership. Even better, Deutscher takes a thoroughly contemporary stance, characteristic of an increasingly influential branch of evolutionary linguistics. His treatment captures three important aspects of this contemporary approach.
Firstly, there is a rejection of speculation, and an insistence that theories of the origins of language should be constrained and informed by empirical data. Deutscher take his data from historical linguistics, although there are of course alternative sources (for example, comparative biology, or developmental linguistics).
Secondly, as highlighted in the introductory chapter, taking cultural evolution seriously allows us to identify what remains to be explained by any innate language faculty. Cultural processes lead to linguistic structure, and if certain linguistic structures are a consequence of cultural evolution then we needn't claim that these structures are hard- wired into the human language faculty.
Thirdly, his uniformitarian position is increasingly common among those who allow a role for cultural processes in language origins. There are alternatives to this viewpoint - for example, we could imagine a scenario under which piecemeal evolution of the capacity for language leads to radically different dynamics to those occurring against the backdrop of a fully-modern language capacity. But it is doubtful how profitable this alternative, non-uniformitarian line of attack can hope to be - far better surely to stick to known or knowable processes, as Deutscher does.
Of course I have objections and queries on some of the details of Deutscher's Chapter 7 argument. I would have been fascinated to see his opinion on theories based around a holistic protolanguage (Wray 1998), and how such a conception of protolanguage would fit in with his theory, if at all, given the recent debate over this (e.g., Bickerton 2003; Tallerman forthcoming). I could also lament his failure to make reference to what I regard as the fourth tenet of contemporary evolutionary linguistics - the insistence on using formal models to test the internal consistency of evolutionary theories. But these are minor quibbles, which should in no way detract from an admirable position, presented in an excellent book.
Bickerton, Derek (2003) Symbol and structure: A comprehensive framework for language evolution. In Christiansen & Kirby (2003), 77-93.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby (2003) Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tallerman, Maggie (forthcoming) Did our ancestors speak a holistic protolanguage?, to appear in Lingua.
Wray, Alison (1998) Protolanguage as a holistic system for social interaction, Language and Communication, 18, 47-67.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kenny Smith is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit in Edinburgh. His research deals with the evolution of language and the human capacity for language. Specific areas of interest include: learning bias and cultural evolution of language, biological evolution of learning biases, and the impact of population dynamics on language evolution.