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Jan 12, 2008 3:41pm

blog all dog-eared pages: the unfolding of language

Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding Of Language was just returned to me after an extended loan, where it was apparently passed on to half a dozen more people or so.

Unfolding is a pop-linguistics book that describes the forces that shape language evolution, illustrates them with copious examples, and finishes up with a lengthy narrative showing how modern language (not necessarily English) might evolve from simple conceptual building blocks. Much of the content would be familiar to anyone in an introductory university linguistics class or one of George Lakoff's frumpy lectures on conceptual metaphor. The book is written in a chatty, at times grating tone, but it neatly presents a picture of linguistic evolution as a whole.

Deutscher shows how changes in language might be viewed from within as a form of decay or destruction, while the deeper currents of creative evolution and expansion remain hidden from view. He recounts familiar worries about degenerate forms like "gonna" or "hella", showing the phonetic drifts that erode longer forms into shorter, more economic ones. At the same time, he describes the expressive changes that get you a verb phrase like "going to go" in the first place, explaining how the mundane conversational furniture of linking verbs and tense markers all around us evolved from concrete analogies to physical space and time.

The examples are classic comparative linguistics. Words and phrases from early written history are compared to modern usage, and metaphors from across languages are showed to have a common conceptual origin. I've chosen a few of the more forceful paragraphs here, but the book is a goldmine of familiar examples and their counterintuitive origins.

Pages 61-62, on how language evolves:

The point is that no one in particular created this footpath, and no one in particular even intended to. The path did not emerge from some project of landscape design, but from the accumulated spontaneous actions of the short-cutters, who were each following their own selfish motives in taking the easiest and quickest route.
Changes in language come about in a rather similar fashion, thghout the accumulation of unintended actionse. These actions must stem from entirely selfish motives, bot from any conscious design to transform language. But what could these motives be? This is a rather more involved question, and doing justice to it will occupy us in the next few chapters. But in essence, the motives for changes can be encapsulated in the triad economy, expressiveness, and analogy.
Economy refers to the tendency to save effort, and is behind the shortcuts speakers often take in pronunciation. ... Expressiveness relates to speakers' attempts to achieve greater effect for their utterances and extend their range of meaning.

Page 62, on analogy which wants its own section:

The third motive for change, analogy, is shorthand for the mind's craving for order, the instinctive need of speakers to find regularity in language. The effects of analogy are most conspicuous in the errors of young children, such as "I goed" or "two foots", which are simply attempts to introduce regularity into areas of the language that happen to be quite disorganized. Many such "errors" are corrected as children grow up, but some innovations do catch on. In the past, for example, there were many more irregular plural nouns in English: on boc (book), many bec; one hand, two hend; one eye, two eyn; one cow, many kine. But gradually, "errors" like "hands" crept in by analogy on the regular -s plural pattern. So bec was replaced by the "incorrect" bokes (books) during the thirteenth century, eyn was replaces by eyes in the fourteenth century, kine by cows in the sixteenth.

Pages 76-77, on decay:

Taking it from the authorities, then, it seems a miracle that language did not degenerate into the grunts of apes long ago. ... There must be some very strong reasons why so many intelligent people should believe something that is so patently irrational: that language is always changing for the worse, and that it is even teetering on the brink of collapse. But what is it exactly that dazzles these scholars and makes them see only decay? Of course, one could write it all off as merely the consequence of some deep-rooted conservatism, a general harking back to bygone better days. "The longer, the worse", as Archbishop Wulfstan so pithily put it - just as people were more polite in one's youth, the weather was nicer, and the apples tasted better, so was language more refined and less abused.
But it would be rather unfair to blame it all on irrational nostalgia, since there is a much more serious reason why so many people think that language is constantly decaying. The reason is quite simply that decay is indeed a pervasive type of change in language, and what is more, it is the aspect of change that is by far the most easily observable to the naked eye. The forces of destruction almost seem to leap out of the pages of practically any language's history, but the contrary processes, the productive forces of renewal and creation, are much more difficult to spot - so difficult, in fact, that it is only in the last few decades that linguists have fully grasped their significance and have made real headway in understanding them.

Pages 112-113, on historical illusions:

The first of these two problems, the alleged perfection of prehistoric languages, was much easier to tackle, since on closer inspection the Golden Age of perfection turned out to be an optical illusion caused by one small but critical oversight. Recall that the idea of a past age of perfection stemmed from simple but apparently compelling logic: the attested languages are riddled with irregularities (such as flos-floris), but when such irregularities are pursued into the past, they can usually be traced or at least reconstructed to a more regular pattern from which they sprang (flos-flosis). The clear implication, then, is that the further back in time one goes, the more regular languages should become. Unassailable logic, surely? Well, there is one snag in this line of reasoning, and to identify it, let's consider another simple example, this time from English. Take a look at the final consonant in the following two forms of the verb "choose": I chose-they chose. But what is there to note here? Both forms have exactly the same consonant, and so there is no irregularity to be accounted for.
And that's precisely the point. One would never feel the need to justify the sound here, or look for any explanation for it, let alone dream up an irregularity behind this well-behaved pair. But as it happens, there are records from earlier stage of English which reveal that in the past "choose" was not quite the pillar of uprightness it is today. In fact, "choose" has quite a doubtful history, since the corresponding two forms in Old English were ceas ("I chose") but curon ("they chose"). It turns out the English "choose" was rather riotous in its youth, and only acquired a mantle of respectability in later stage of English, when the irregularity in ceas-curon was ironed out. But we only know about this juvenile delinquency because we happen to have records from the right period. If the written history of English happened to start at 1200, rather than around 800, there would never be any reason to suspect that "choose" had such a chequered history.

Page 127, on metaphor and its origins in the physical world:

At first, the ubiquity of metaphors even in the plainest of speech may seem perplexing, and their persistent one-way course even more so. Why is it that when one scratches a bit, most abstract words tend to have concrete origins? Why should the surge of metaphors always flow from concrete to abstract, and so rarely in the other direction? Why do we say about legislation that it is "tough", but not about a steak that it is "severe"?
The answer to these questions is quite straightforward. Imagine for a moment that the metaphor "tough" was not at our disposal, and that some alternatives for describing "tough legislation" had to be found. Except "severe", what options are there? We could say that the legislation was "inflexible", "strict", "repressive", "oppressive", "firm", "stern", "stringent", "unyielding", "unbending", "harsh", and so on. But there's the rub - none of these alternatives would help dodge a metaphor, since, just like "tough", all these tough-talking terms originally derive from the physical world. They all set out in life in the domain of materials. Some, like "unbending", "firm", "unyielding" or "inflexible", still betray traces of their old selves - thing of "flexing your muscles", for instance. But even the other options, those that are no longer recognizable, are skeletons of what once were full-blooded metaphors in the world of materials. "Oppressive", for instance, comes from "press against" (opprimere in Latin); "stringent" is derived from "bind tight" (stringere), while "harsh" (from Middle English harsk) originally meant "hard and rough to the touch".

Page 132, more on physical origins:

The images here are simple: what one holds or carries or seizes is used to convey what one "has". And in fact, English does the same thing with the verb "get" in sentences like "the man's got a car", which means the same as "the man has a car". So like Waata and Nama, English takes a verb of taking, and uses it as a metaphor for possession: "what one has got, one has". And if you are still unpersuaded, and are inclined to discount the expression "he's got" as just a sloppy substitute for the more respectable "have", then you might like to know that the origin of "have" itself is as grasping as the rest. "Have" ultimately derives from a Proto-Indo-European root *kap, which meant "seize". The original sense of *kap survives in the Latin root cap "seize", which found its way into English in the borrowed words "capture" (as well as in "captive", "caption", "capable", "recipe", "occupy", and even "catch"). The reason why the English homegrown "have" looks so different from its forebear *kap is simply Grimm's law, the series of sound changes in Germanic mentioned in the previous chapter, in which k was weakened to h, and p to f, thus turning *kap into *haf. So while "capture" and "have" look rather un-identical, they are in fact a pair of separated twins, deriving from the same source, *kap "seize".

Pages 154-155, on the forces of creation as rendered in a hypothetical conference dialogue and the word "gonna":

DE TROY: But seriously, there's nothing especially mysterious about this "particular combination" of metaphor and erosion. What happens to the "going" verbs in all these languages is the result of two common motives that are always behind the scenes: the desire to enhance our expressive range on the one hand, and laziness on the other. The flow towards abstraction is a consequence of this expressive urge: even if a language already has a future marker, speakers will always seek fresher ways of emphasizing that something is really going to happen. For example, they may want to stress that something will happen very soon indeed. Just think of the promise "I'm going to do it right away" - doesn't it sound much more promising than a mere "I'll do it"?
CHAIRMAN: But how does the erosion of language know when to start?
DE TROY: It doesn't. It carries on regardless, and keeps trying to hack away at everything all the time. But some constructions are more susceptible to it, while others are more resistant. So what happened to "going to" was really just a consequence of its hackneyed use in its new domain. As long as "going to" retained its independent meaning, it had a much stronger resistance and this is why no one says "I'm gonna bed". But once "going to" lost its independent content, it became much more exposed, because it was now used more often, in more predictable circumstances, and with far less stress. So naturally the temptation to take shortcuts in pronunciation grew, and the risk of misunderstanding decreased. In such conditions, the phrase was more prone to erosion than ever before, and so it's not surprising that the bleached future sense was shortened to "gonna".

Page 213, the introduction to an extended example showing how language can evolve from a defined starting point:

Now it is all very well to say that the starting point should already have some words to go on - but which? I suggest that just three groups are sufficient as the raw materials: words for physical things (such as body parts, animals, objects, kinship terms like "father"), words for simple actions (like "throw", "run", "eat", "fall"), and a third group small group consisting of the pointing words "this" and "that". We do not need to include at the starting point words for any abstract concepts, now do we require any grammatical words and elements (prepositions, conjunctions, articles, endings, prefixes, and the like). All these can subsequently develop from the raw materials in the three groups above.
Another point about this initial setup which one might want to take issue is the division of words into things and actions. Why should such a distinction be built into the system at the starting point? Shouldn't our evolutionary scenario actually account for it in some way? But it would be unreasonable to require our scenario to explain the emergence of the distinction between things and actions, since the conceptual basis for this distinction runs much deeper than language, and must have crystallized long before language was around.


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