Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language

Have you ever wondered how the majestic case structure of Latin nouns came about? Every one of them has a number of suffixes that identify it as being in a particular grammatical case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative or ablative; some nouns have specific vocative or locative forms as well), usually in both singular and plural forms. Latin is awash with case endings, creating great difficulty for those learning the language nowadays.

Or what about the way in which words are formed in Arabic? Most of them are based on a root of three consonants, so that the root k t b produces words related to writing: kataba ‘write’, kitab ‘a book’, kutub ‘books’,  kitabi ‘scriptural’, miktab ‘typewriter’, katib ‘writer’, kitaba ‘female writer’, and  maktub a fatalistic ‘it is written’, among many others. And there are patterns in the way in which words are derived: just as k t b produces maktaba, a place where writing is done (office/library) , so the root d r s, which is concerned with teaching, generates madrasa, a place where teaching is done (school.) One may be inclined to see this awe inspiring system as the creation of a solitary genius. But languages don’t develop like this.

Guy Deutscher shows us how such systems became established. Some of his evidence is fragmentary, based on evidence of the early history of these languages, but most is drawn from developments in languages going on all around us right now. He sees languages as being in perpetual motion, being subject to forces that grind words down so that they can be more easily enunciated, a tendency for words used literally to be deployed metaphorically, creative powers that allow the suffixes that mark cases to emerge from other things, and a craving for order that permits patterns to become widespread. These principles are enough to account for the wonderful structures of Latin and Arabic! (I should mention that his discussion of the latter language deals with verb forms, but the principles can be easily broadened.)

In a brief passage at the end of the book, Deutscher mentions something many will have noticed, the present tendency in the world for structures to become more simple.  English used to have a case structure rivalling Latin in its complexity, but now has only one suffix to mark case in nouns (the possessive form, as in ‘the cat’s whiskers’), and even this can easily be avoided (by saying ‘the whiskers of the cat’). He suggests that this is because greater contact between the speakers of different languages has caused complex word structures to become more simple. He is surely correct, for this is exactly what happened to Greek when it spread in the Hellenistic period; the structures of the classical language were streamlined to yield its koine form. Languages are among the most fascinating human creations, and people who love them will love this book.

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