The Unfolding of Language

an evolutionary tour of mankind's greatest invention

by Guy Deutscher

Language is mankind’s greatest invention – except of course, that it was never invented.”  So begins linguist Guy Deutscher’s 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, The Unfolding of Language exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication, giving us fresh insight into how language is formed, evolves, and decays. It traces the emergence of linguistic complexity from an early evolutionary “Me Tarzan” stage all the way to the expressive power of languages today, with their intricate engineering which allows them to convey unrestrictedly complex thoughts and ideas.

Arguing that destruction and creation in language are intimately entwined,The Unfolding of Language shows how these processes are continuously in operation, generating new words, new structures, and new meanings. From the written records of lost civilizations to the spoken idiom of today’s streets, we move nimbly from ancient Babylonian through medieval French to the English of the present.  We marvel at the staggering triumph of design that is the Semitic verb, puzzle over single words that can express highly elaborate sentiments, such as the Turkish  sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz (“you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town-dweller”), and learn how great changes of pronunciation may result from an age old human habit - simple laziness. Through the dramatic story of The Unfolding of Language, we discover the genius behind a uniquely human faculty.