THE WEDNESDAY BOOK: Where Do Our Languages Come from? Ask Mae West ; THE UNFOLDING OF LANGUAGE by Guy Deutscher HEINEMANN, Pounds 20. ORDER FOR Pounds 18 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
Church, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
As Guy Deutscher shows with quotations from Cicero, Swift, Orwell, French Academicians and Samuel Johnson, 'Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration.' Language is never what it was in the good old days.
But, while puncturing the myth of a linguistic golden age, Deutscher does point us back to something akin: the Proto-Indo- European tongue, from which almost all languages from the Celtic fringe to the east of India are descended.
Through speculative archaeology, coupled with scrutiny of the linguistic past as it manifests itself in the present, he aims to show how languages evolve. Being a joker, he also gives us fun along the way. And if some of his jokes do go on a bit, he laces his story with bons mots, from Mae West's 'a hard man is good to find' to Mark Twain's skit on German genders: 'Hear the rain, how he pours, and the hail, how he rattles... Ah the poor fishwife, it is stuck in the mire'. Genders take Deutscher into wonderful linguistic regions, like Gurr-goni in Arnhem Land, for whose speakers an aeroplane has the same gender as an edible vegetable (logically, as he shows). …