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Conlang book report: The Unfolding of Language

From:Amanda Babcock Furrow <langs@...>
Date:Monday, January 1, 2007, 2:25
I got The Unfolding of Language (Guy Deutscher, 2005, Metropolitan Books, NY)
for Christmas, and in reading it I thought it would be neat to review it
from a conlanging viewpoint.

Briefly, this book is not aimed at the average conlang subscriber as I
conceive of hir, as it assumes no familiarity whatsoever with linguistics.
This is certainly a good thing for most readers, but a seasoned conlanger
may feel a thrill of dread when reading a footnote to the word "case"
reading: "All linguistic terms used in this book are explained in the
glossary".  Fortunately, the rest of the book is not quite as low-level
as that footnote had me thinking, or else I adjusted quickly.  The book
would actually be very much on target for beginning conlangers, who could
get quite a bit of inspiration from both the examples and the overall
thrust of the book.  I would note, however, that it felt like fully 50%
of the text could be excised as it served no purpose other than to chivvy
the reader along and hammer home whatever point he had just made.

That said, the book was a goldmine for me of arcane examples, which I
felt to be its best point and what kept me reading.  If you are already
familiar with the Akkadian languages, proto-Germanic and PIE, the
development of Old French from Vulgar Latin, and how the Semitic verb
system arose, then there remain only random drive-by example sentences
from several African and the occasional Asian or North American language
to whet your appetite.

The second most valuable feature of this book, to me, was what was intended
to be its main point, which is the ubiquity of erosion and abstraction
in creating new affixes or inflections.  I knew that there was a cycle
of words eroding to affixes, eroding to inflections, and eroding away,
but this author goes to great lengths to back up his assertion that
every single morpheme in language came from somewhere: either by eroding
from an originally more concrete word, or by analogy to what appeared
to be systematic operations elsewhere in the language.  It gave me a
feeling that I should be doing a great deal more to provide my conlangs
with affixes that have a history - even though I do not usually conlang

My least favorite part of the book is the last chapter.  The author
attempts to show, in a broad sketch, how language as we know it would
have developed naturally and inevitably from what he calls the "me Tarzan"
stage to the fully subordinating structure that we have today.  He
illustrates the progress of his thought experiment using a story about
a father spearing a mammoth to save his daughter.

A mammoth?  "Me Tarzan"?  I found this section painful to read; I was
embarrassed for the author.  I'd rather get more details on the Semitic
verb system instead.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  Along with the urge to write a more diachronic
conlang, it has left me with the feeling that I really need to learn the
Akkadian languages and Old English, plus probably proto-Germanic and Old
French.  Too bad I have a baby.  Five appendices allow the author to go
into more detail than his mainstream audience wants to know about, and the
endnotes (which I haven't read yet) look like they have more examples and
details in them.



Lars Finsen <lars.finsen@...>
Eric Christopherson <rakko@...>