Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Forked tongues

A new book, reviewed in The Observer at the weekend, gives an account of how languages develop over time and why certain patterns always seem to emerge.

Language change is a topic that allows us to look at the origins and devlopment of English (and other languages) tracing the roots of the language, but it also allows us to see why the language is changing. Some theorists believe that the language is constantly altering to make it more streamlined, while others point to a degeneration in language over time (again, a bit like Aitchison's "Crumbling Castle" model of language) , but a more radical suggestion is that language has a parasitic relationship with humans and has evolved alongside us, constantly adapting to allow itself to be passed on through generations. Spooky stuff...and not something that Deutscher in his book, The Unfolding of Language, looks at in the review below, but an idea you'll find in a book called The Symbolic Species by Terence Deacon
(reviewed here and here).

Forked tongues

Deborah Cameron on Guy Deutscher's account of linguistic evolution, The Unfolding of Language

Deborah Cameron
Saturday July 2, 2005


The Unfolding of Language
by Guy Deutscher
360pp, William Heinemann, £20

"Language seems so skilfully crafted," writes Guy Deutscher, "that it appears to be the work of a master architect - and yet its complex structure must somehow have arisen of its own accord." Nobody ever invented human language: its structures are not the result of any purposeful design. The aim of this book is to explain how, in the absence of any architect or plan, complex linguistic systems develop.

Although there is no master plan driving the process, it is clear that language change is a universal phenomenon, and patterned rather than random: certain kinds of changes recur in widely separated languages. Deutscher seeks to explain the underlying principles at work here, drawing on evidence from both real and reconstructed "proto" languages. He also seeks to show how those principles could account for a much earlier development, one linguists can only speculate about, since if it happened it took place so far back in prehistory as to be beyond reconstruction - the formation of human languages as we know them from the simpler systems that were their hypothetical precursors.

Deutscher imagines what he dubs a "Me Tarzan" stage of linguistic evolution, when humans communicated using a small number of words and some basic rules for ordering them, and applies what we know about language change to explain how such a "primitive" system might have acquired the complexity that is evident in even the oldest languages known to scholarship.

In fact, the most ancient languages for which we have records often look more grammatically complex than their modern descendants: think of Latin, with its profusion of case endings, compared with modern Italian or French. This observation led earlier scholars to argue that language change was essentially degeneration. August Schleicher declared in 1850: "The further back we can follow a language, the more perfect we find it ... languages as such go backwards." But more recent scholarship has rejected this view on the grounds that decay and renewal, creation and destruction, are two sides of a single coin: the same mechanisms are responsible for both.

Case endings, for instance, may be lost because of the tendency of speakers to follow an "economy" or "least effort" principle, lopping off final syllables or pronouncing them so indistinctly as to obscure whatever grammatical information they contain. In saving themselves the effort of pronouncing their endings clearly, speakers effectively destroy the case system. But as Deutscher explains, it was the same kind of laziness that created case endings in the first place. These endings were originally separate words, called postpositions (like prepositions, but placed after rather than before nouns). Speakers following the "least effort" principle simply fused postpositions with their preceding nouns, reducing two words (like "house to") to one ("house [dative]").

But if the principle of least effort were all there was to language change, we would presumably end up communicating in monosyllabic grunts. The reason this doesn't happen is that there are countervailing tendencies, among them what Deutscher calls the principle of expressiveness, the drive to extend a language's communicative range. One typical manifestation of this is the metaphorical use of concrete terms in more abstract senses. For instance, everyday discourse is full of body-part terms applied to concepts other than the body itself: we meet the "head of department", get to the "heart of the matter" and travel to the "back of beyond".

Expressiveness also lies behind the tendency to elaborate commonplace words and phrases in a bid to give them emphasis or freshness. Then, as the elaborated forms themselves become commonplace, the whole cycle begins again. Deutscher gives the example of the French word "aujourd'hui" ("today"). "Hui" is a reduced form of the Latin word "hodie", itself reduced from "hoc die", "this day". So "aujourd'hui" literally means "on the day of this day". But just as "hui" seemed insufficiently expressive to their ancestors, who added "au jour de", so present-day French speakers, unaware of its history, have become dissatisfied with the fused form "aujourd'hui". In colloquial speech people have started saying "au jour d'aujourd'- hui" - "on the day of on the day of this day".

The other principle Deutscher discusses is analogy, a tendency to create order by tidying up exceptions, anomalies and irregularities. In English, for instance, there are two kinds of verbs: "strong" ones which make past tenses by changing the vowel ("drink/drank") and "weak" ones which mark past tenses with the ending -ed. Since in modern English the weak type is commoner, it is not unusual for speakers to start putting weak past tense endings on historically strong verbs - saying "dreamed" instead of "dreamt", for instance. But the opposite may also happen: an example is the weak verb "dive", which has recently developed a strong past tense form, "dove", presumably on the analogy of "drive/drove". This illustrates the point that there is no overall design driving language change.

The subject matter of Deutscher's book is well chosen to engage a non-specialist audience, and his presentation is generally lucid. I was slightly disappointed by certain omissions: he does not discuss the role of social motivations in advancing or inhibiting change, nor - except in a footnote disputing their relevance - the auxiliary languages, jargons and pidgins, whose development might offer concrete historical evidence about the growth of grammatical complexity.

But my real reservations are more about manner than matter. A popular book on an academic subject must speak to the lay reader, but without talking down: Deutscher seems to find this a struggle. In his efforts to be entertaining he sometimes comes across as patronising. When he explains the principle of economy - scarcely a concept you need a degree in linguistics to grasp - by inventing little fables about the lazy inhabitants of "Idleford" and "Santa Siesta", the effect is laboured. I was also irritated by the prefatory warnings with which he flags certain topics as particularly demanding. We are advised that the Semitic verb "does not make for light bedtime reading", and that a discussion of the origins of syntax will be taxing enough to require special preparation: "So make yourself a strong cup of coffee, and read on."

The Unfolding of Language would be a much better book without these arch distractions; but for readers who want to know what modern scholarship has to say about the development of language, it is still an informative and thought-provoking guide.

· Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication at Oxford University. To order The Unfolding of Language for £18 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.

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