Mark McKerracher

Fantasy fiction

Review: The Unfolding of Language

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention, by Guy Deutscher.

How did human languages come to be so elaborate, so idiosyncratic, and so very diverse?

I’m not a linguistic, but for a long time I’ve been interested in how different languages work and how they relate to one another. So this book was ideal for me: an account of linguistic evolution, based on heavyweight research but rendered into very accessible ‘popular science’ style, with no prior assumptions about the reader’s knowledge (besides a good understanding of English). Some readers might find the first chapter too slow or basic, unnecessarily labouring points about how irregular or unusual aspects of English can be. But that turns out to be essential groundwork, because Deutscher (in my case, at least) steadily broke down and reconstructed my entire view of language, and how it changes over long and short spans of time. His expositions cover some of the history of linguistics, too – which is fascinating in its own right – and include examples from languages all over the world. This isn’t a ‘family history’ of all world languages, though. Rather, it explains clearly and succinctly the processes which can account for humanity’s wonderfully diverse tongues, in all their logical and irregular grandeur. An excellent book that I can imagine reading fruitfully again in the future.

My overall rating: 5 stars

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