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'A persuasive and beautifully written take on how languages are constantly evolving... an enthralling read about human psychology and anthropology as well as linguistics.' ALEX BELLOS
'Language is mankind's greatest invention - except of course, that it was never invented'. So begins Guy Deutscher's fascinating investigation into the evolution of language. No one believes that the Roman Senate sat down one day to design the complex system that is Latin grammar, and few believe, these days, in the literal truth of the story of the Tower of Babel. But then how did there come to be so many languages, and of such elaborate design? If we started off with rudimentary utterances on the level of 'man throw spear', how did we end up with sophisticated grammars, enormous vocabularies, and intricately nuanced shades of meaning?
Drawing on recent, groundbreaking discoveries in modern linguistics, Deutscher exposes the elusive forces of creation at work in human communication. Along the way, we learn why German maidens are neuter while German turnips are female, why we have feet not foots, and how great changes in pronunciation may result from simple laziness...
'Powerful and thrilling' SPECTATOR
'Really ought to be read by anyone who persists in complaining that the English language is going to the dogs' SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
'I was enthralled' A.S. Byatt, for GUARDIAN 'Books of the Year'
'Highly original... clever and convincing... this book will stretch your mind' INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
'Fascinating' BOSTON GLOBE
Using language himself in a lively and engaging way, Deutscher, an expert in Semitic languages at the University of Leiden in Holland, identifies two principles the desire to create order out of chaotic reality, and the urge to vary the sounds of words and their meanings providing the direction by which language developed and continues to develop. Rather than search for the prehistoric moment when speech originated, Deutscher says we can most profitably understand the phenomenon by taking the present as the key to the past. Using a wide array of examples, he delves into the back-formation of words (making a noun into a verb), the evolution of relative clauses from simple pointing words (that, this) and the turning of objects into nouns. On the question of whether language is innate, Deutscher takes a middle path, asserting that our brains are wired for basic language, but that linguistic complexity is brought about by cultural evolution. Deutscher's entertaining writing and his knack for telling a good tale about how words develop offer a delightful and charming story of language.