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The Unfolding of Language - Book review

1 April 2016

Dr. Moria Levy

"The Unfolding of Language: A Quest for Man's Greatest Invention" is a captivating book, and I want to underscore its significance in the context of the knowledge management field. As knowledge management professionals, we inherently understand the crucial role that language infrastructure plays in promoting collaboration. Those engaged in content creation or editing are particularly attuned to language, yet its fundamental importance is often taken for granted.

Authored in 2005, this book provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of language. Without a profound understanding of this process, our capacity to preserve, share, make accessible, and even advance knowledge would be severely restricted. It's important to note that the book doesn't focus on a specific language but instead delves into the broader family of languages, offering comprehensive insights into their

The book explores several key topics, including:

1.The Enigma of Language Invention

2.Factors Driving Linguistic Change:

  • Preservation

  • Expression Impulse

  • The Pursuit of Order

  • Language Development

In a book dedicated to language study, the richness and relevance of examples in the book's original language are paramount. In this case, many examples are adapted to Hebrew, resulting in a truly fascinating exploration. This linguistic journey is not solely reserved for academics or language enthusiasts; it has broader appeal and relevance. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in delving into the intricate world of language and its evolution.

The Enigma of Language Invention

Our everyday language, the medium through which we communicate and engage in reflective thought, may appear self-evident. However, upon closer examination, regardless of the language under study, it becomes apparent that language is a construct of thought. It's not merely a collection of words representing objects and actions, but rather, it is, in essence, a finely crafted structure designed with meticulous intricacy. One might liken it to a meticulously constructed building, a masterpiece of linguistic architecture that serves as a framework enabling us to employ words that share similarities but can convey a myriad of variations, spanning different tenses, actions, affiliations, and more. This fundamental understanding is imparted to every child and language student in school. So, where does the enigma lie?

The puzzle resides in the complexity of these linguistic structures and the question of their origin—whether they are the result of gradual development, crafted over the years through incremental steps, or whether they represent a creation or invention—something initially designed with its splendid framework, tense variations, structures, and other components. On one hand, it remains a mystery how humans could have conceived such intricate patterns. On the other hand, if such a structure were created from the outset, how do we account for its numerous exceptions (present in every language) that deviate from our expectations?

This book attempts to solve this linguistic riddle by asserting that languages are, in fact, evolutionary. Deutscher explains how languages have evolved and developed into their present forms. This perspective is grounded in the understanding that languages are constantly in flux and continuously transforming. Languages are not static entities but are marked by change in every era. These changes encompass several vital aspects:

  • Addition of New Words: New words are incorporated into the language over time. For instance, in Hebrew, we have modern additions like "Ice Cream" (M.L.).

  • Words Falling into Disuse: Some words eventually cease to be used.

  • Shifts in Word Meanings: Words can undergo shifts in meaning.

  • Introduction of Vowels: Adding auxiliary vowels.

The central premise is that no linguistic element is immune to change; everything—sounds, meanings, and linguistic structures—can and does change. The assumption is that initially, the world shared "one language and several things" (as seen in the story of the Tower of Babel), but as nations dispersed in different directions, their languages evolved, each taking a unique path while adhering to inherent linguistic laws.

Factors Driving Linguistic Change:


People naturally seek ways to economize whenever possible. Various forms of linguistic savings manifest within languages, adding to the diversity of linguistic expression. These types of “savings” include:

  1. Sound Transcription: This involves substituting sounds that are easier to pronounce, considering the strain on vocal cords.

  2. Assimilation: When different sounds closely follow one another, it's often more convenient to make them sound the same. For example, "no" becomes "sonno" in Italian, "simulation" remains "simulation," or "will fall" becomes "fall" in Hebrew.

  3. Word Initial Erosion.

  4. Word Ending Erosion: This is quite common, where endings of words are eroded, such as "nichleadership" in German instead of "nicht."

  5. Reduction of Relativity: Relativity refers to additions to words that indicate their syntactic role within a sentence, such as subject, direct, or indirect object. Originally, Indo-European languages had extensive relativity systems, but most modern languages have significantly reduced the use of relativity if they use it at all.

  6. Use of Phrases for Common Words: This form of savings is particularly significant and serves as the foundation for grammatical structures, leading to the development of additional word forms, such as insertions, coverings, and more. Similarly, word prefixes may result from this linguistic evolution, as analyzed by Deutscher.

These various linguistic economies contribute to language richness and illustrate their adaptive nature as they evolve to become more efficient and user-friendly.

Expression Impulse

In stark contrast to the inclination to economize language, which some might perceive as laziness or, in certain circles, as a negligent and imprecise use of language, a counterbalancing linguistic movement is characterized by augmentation.

This augmentation primarily manifests in the following categories of expressive changes:

  1. Accents and Amplification: People often wish to emphasize specific words within a sentence, thus incorporating additional terms to enrich their expression. Occasionally, this phenomenon arises from the frequent usage of certain words, resulting in their diminished impact. To restore their potency, additional terms are introduced. A simple example is the overuse of the word "disaster" (even, as the book's author notes, to describe an unsuccessful haircut), leading to the widespread use of emphatic expressions like "extra," "super," "hyper," and so on, embedding redundancy to serve emphasis.

  2. Metaphorical Expressions: Metaphors are the primary mechanism for expanding language from concrete objects to abstract concepts. In nearly every sentence, we employ abstract terms like "cuts" (in the context of budgetary reductions, not just vegetable slicing) and "plummeting" (pertaining to price drops, not objects falling from the sky). All these linguistic innovations have evolved due to the expressive impulse via metaphors. At times, the original meaning of a word may become obscured, leaving only the abstract term in use. Likewise, place-related terms have been transposed into temporal and causal contexts (using "from," "to," "on," "since," etc.), and pronouns have evolved into complex grammatical structures.

  3. Conversion of Nouns to Verbs and Vice Versa: It has become commonplace to convert nouns into verbs and vice versa. For instance, "milking" milk? Here, a noun has assumed the role of a verb. This linguistic fluidity enables the language to adapt and evolve continually.

This augmentation of language, while seemingly in contrast to the instinct to conserve, reflects the dynamic nature of language, constantly expanding to convey nuanced meanings and facilitate communication.

The Pursuit of Order

The drive for order, or analogy, represents any language's primary creative force. The ability to construct consistent patterns and frameworks through which language can function facilitates its expansion. It provides control and the means to employ it effectively, all without placing an infinite demand on our human memory.

As proposed by Deutscher, these patterns underwent development in five distinct stages, a process detailed in the book. These stages gave rise to consonant roots (as observed in Hebrew), the integration of vowels, the introduction of tenses, the systematic transition between verbs and nouns, and the reverse transformation from nouns to verbs. Initially, hollow verbs predominated, but as the language evolved through these stages, it produced patterns that ultimately favored three-consonant roots as the foundational structure.

Language Development

We have observed a continuous oscillation in the evolution of words and their accompanying grammatical structures—a perpetual cycle encompassing both economizing and expansion. This process unfolds as a sequence of savings and erosion, followed by periods of enrichment and repetition. The series of events within this cycle does not adhere to rigid precedence; instead, the cyclical nature prevails.

The development of languages encompasses not only the evolution of words and structures but also the integration of other linguistic elements, including:

  • The construction of sentences, where word order and proximity play crucial roles.

  • The addition of adjectives (such as "big" and "beautiful"), as well as the attachment of adjectives to verbs (e.g., "quickly").

  • The introduction of syntax governs the relationships between subjects, objects, and other participants.

  • Establishing a layered hierarchical structure gives rise to embedded sentences (small sentences subservient to larger ones).

In conclusion, the insights gleaned from the preceding discussion (as well as those left unexplored due to constraints of brevity) underscore several key points:

  1. Language is an evolutionary process rather than a deliberate invention.

  2. What may appear as exceptions in hindsight are often traced back to a series of incremental changes, each with its internal logic.

  3. Language did not arise from a master plan but resulted from an amalgamation of order and complexity.

On a contemplative note, it's worth acknowledging that complex languages tend to simplify over time due to interactions with speakers of different languages and the influence of written communication. This interaction leads to language simplification. Sadly, many languages face a precarious future, with estimates suggesting that up to half to three-quarters of the world's remaining 6,000 languages may vanish by the end of the 21st century. Consequently, it is prudent to engage in the study of these languages both to gain insights into their unique characteristics and to preserve valuable linguistic diversity.

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