The Unfolding of Language

I have read most of Guy Deutscher’s book “The Unfolding of Language” on a 10-hour flight to Johannesburg, and loved every page.Deutscher’s most compelling thesis is that languages develop through self-destruction and regeneration. This sphinx-like process has been happening for thousands of years, and is still happening now. The reason for this is what he calls “the economy of least effort” – simply put, we’re too lazy to speak our own language as we should.

Deutscher looks at way words shifted shape and meaning throughout cultural history. A spectacular example is the French word aujourd’hui (‘today’) – apparently, French speakers used originally the word ‘hui’ – a reduction of the Latin ‘hoc die’ (‘this day’.) Not knowing the original meaning of the word they were using, they tried to be more specific and added “au jour de” (‘on the day of the’..) to the term ‘hui’. As a result of this mutation, the French word for ‘today’ translates as “on the day of the this day.”

Other examples include the fact that while German maidens are genderless, turnips are female, and a single Turkish word – sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz, meaning “you are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town-dweller.”

If there is an overriding message in Deutscher’s book, it is – in his own words that “Language is mankind’s greatest invention – except of course, that it was never invented.”