The Unfolding of Language, By Guy Deutscher | Literature Review

This was another suggestion made by YouTuber Bibliaridion, who specializes in conlangs.


This is basically an examination of the development of language from prehistoric times onwards. It is important to note that Deutscher himself states that his analysis is speculative, since there are no records of any forms of communication dating back 10,000 years.

Guy Deutscher

He is an Israeli linguist and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester.

He makes use of the interviews he conducted in order to illustrate his points.


Cultural evolution is the major theme of the book, since it is from this process that the codes of behavior are passed down via language.

The issue of the proto-languages’ structures becomes a theme in the book, since Deutscher speculates that prehistoric languages had complex grammars until they started being condensed for the years to come. English itself had a complex grammar similar to that of German, until it started simplifying by 1400. He would conclude that small, pre-literate societies have complex grammars because they consist of tightly knit clans where interaction is done more often with intimates rather than strangers, then when literate civilizations developed, they condensed the amount of words and grammar rules in order to interact with strangers who swear under the same banner.

Deutscher mentions how a language can only function when there is a grammar that makes the words easy to understand. This is where the hierarchy of order comes in which dictates whether a language relies on separate words in a strict order or an agglutinative language, or if the words use affixes.

Another theme that he touches upon is the fact that English has a notorious orthography, since the sounds are very inconsistent from word to word. He noted that it had to do with the change that English underwent for one thousand years. So, it would make sense that the writing has difficulty keeping up with the oral communication. This also becomes relevant, since Deutscher gives a reason as to why languages diverge into separate languages, which is that the world is constantly changing and language speakers are constantly moving either physically or technologically.

He further explains that languages evolve through the process of attempting to express particular moods or by reducing the amount of sounds by assimilating them into one sound, as in the case of Hebrew and Italian. The need to assimilate sounds is also a common feature, since it highlights the human desire to establish order over a language. Even young children show this sign, as well as Ancient Latin speakers who created slotted word patterns when conjugated into different moods.

Categorization becomes an important topic when discussing metaphors. Metaphors not only extending to an entire predicates, rather to common verbs. In those cases, the categories that have blurred distinctions are the time and locative words. Deutscher points out that in even formalized writing, there are a lot of metaphors.

Historical Context

Deutscher starts discussing in the introduction the supposed, deeply controversial origins of human language, which range from 40,000 years ago to 1.5 million years ago. He makes the case that since there were beads and axes made, it could be evidence that language was transmitted from generation to generation, however he counters that apes such as chimpanzees are already known for using twigs as tools. If any language origin occurred, then it would have involved very simple grammar with only thing-words (nouns), action-words (verbs), pointing words (conjunctions/propositions), and property words (physical objects).

He also illustrates the evolution that vocabulary has by looking at the same passage of Noah building his ark but written in different times, that being in 2000, during the King James translation, in 1300 by a monk named John Wycliffe, and around 1000 by an Anglo-Saxon poet named Aelfric. He noted that while they all refer to the same event of Noah building an ark from gopher wood, the words are completely different, both in phonology and in usage.

He further mentions Grimm’s law, which is the theory that languages change their sounds through time, like (b>p>f) and (k>ch>h). This is found throughout the Indo-European language family. This led to the theory that there was a laryngeal sound in the earliest forms of the language family by linguist Saussure. This would become a major discovery within the ancient Hittite language, inscribed with Akkadian cuneiform. Though the major discovery that led to this point was that the European languages were not related to Hebrew, rather to Sanskrit.

Just like Hittite, there was also the issue of a quirky vowel that may have been present in the early forms of Hebrew. The vowel changes are a major part of language change, particularly if the people need economic use of the words in order to convey a specific expression.

Writing Style

He references words that would appear unusually huge, but encapsulate an entire meaning within them. This is not a strange occurrence because I am used to reading really big words as an English major. He also makes use of jargon used in linguistics, for obvious reasons.

He describes the development of language with –ations at the end, such as crystallization. He himself acknowledges doing this in order to accurately describe the state of movement of language from simple words to complicated grammar.

Real World Application

Although there is a lot of speculation in this book, it should not make the reader feel like their time is wasted. If anything, this book should give them the opportunity to frame not the answers they seek, but the questions they ask. There is a lot to know about language itself, since recorded language dating back 5000 years is but a small blip in the chronology of human evolution. By asking unique questions, they will lead towards unique answers.

Although Deutscher is himself a linguist and makes use of linguistic terms, he acknowledges that there were limits of make declarative statements about a pre-literate past. He notes this by referencing August Schleicher who made the case that languages decay, when that is not true, since they do not “decay” rather they change.

Recommend This To…

  • Anyone interested in human evolution. Specifically those who are just starting to study it.


Deutscher, Guy. “The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention.” 1st Edition. Metropolitan Books. 2006.

Image Attribution: Micky Milkyway

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