The Unfolding of Language
By Guy Deutscher
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You may or may not have heard of Pimp My Ride, a cult MTV makeover show in which ordinary cars are tarted up with all manner of automotive bling. Well, this is a case of 'Pimp My Thesis'. Someone, somewhere decided that Guy Deutscher's highly original study of the evolution of language needed jokes. So jokes he has supplied, in the shape of tricksy bits of typesetting, a whole chapter done as a Socratic dialogue, and many stories, anecdotes and witty remarks of the kind you find in Readers' Digest. Sadly, this material is about as funny as anthrax. Deutscher is no comedian.
But why should he be? Bill Bryson (namechecked on the jacket blurb) is funny because he's a humorist. Steven Pinker (also namechecked on the jacket blurb)is funny because he likes being funny. His account of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, for instance, will have you rolling about. Deutscher can't do that, and shouldn't have been encouraged to try. What he can do, and has done, is give us a brilliant solution to a quandary that has puzzled people for many centuries. There was no need to whack readers round the head with a pig's bladder on a stick while explaining it.
But that's enough about the book's failings. It is, on the whole, extremely thought-provoking. I wouldn't say it read like a thriller, and not only because I try to avoid clichs. It's a book of comparative philology, so you wouldn't expect that. You'd expect some brow-furrowing ideas and that's what you get. And Deutscher, when he's not attempting to tickle your ribs, is very good at explaining them.
He starts with a thorough exegesis of a familiar idea. Noting the tendency of people to complain that their language is in decay, he demonstrates that such complaints are as old as recorded language itself. (Incidentally, he includes Orwell in the list of complainers, which isn't fair. Orwell wasn't talking about natural decline but deliberate or careless concealment of the truth by linguistic means.)
This idea, that all languages decay from an earlier position of regularity and complexity, turns out to be true. Classical Latin is ordered and rule- driven, whereas medieval Latin is rough and ready. …