Review of The Unfolding of Language
Date: Mon, 12 Sep 2005 12:34:46 +0100 (BST)
From: Kenny Smith
Subject: The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's
AUTHOR: Deutscher, Guy
TITLE: The Unfolding of Language
SUBTITLE: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Company (Metropolitan Books)
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
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.