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Conlang book report: The Unfolding of Language

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  • Amanda Babcock Furrow
    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
    Message 1 of 9 , Dec 31, 2006
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      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
      diachronically.

      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.

      tylakehlpe'fo,
      Amanda
    • Lars Finsen
      ... This makes me curious. I d like a very brief outline, please. I know some people have screwed-up ideas about the origin of language. Is he one of them? Or
      Message 2 of 9 , Jan 1, 2007
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        Den 1. jan. 2007 kl. 03.25 skrev Amanda Babcock Furrow:
        >
        > 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.

        This makes me curious. I'd like a very brief outline, please. I know
        some people have screwed-up ideas about the origin of language. Is he
        one of them? Or is it you? Or is it me?

        Screwed-up ideas can be entertaining, if nothing else.

        LEF
      • Amanda Babcock Furrow
        ... Ok, I will attempt it... His first premise: that there existed a stage where language consisted of 2 or 3 word sentences, where the words were simple
        Message 3 of 9 , Jan 1, 2007
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          On Tue, Jan 02, 2007 at 01:08:53AM +0100, Lars Finsen wrote:

          > >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.
          >
          > This makes me curious. I'd like a very brief outline, please. I know
          > some people have screwed-up ideas about the origin of language. Is he
          > one of them? Or is it you? Or is it me?

          Ok, I will attempt it...

          His first premise: that there existed a stage where language consisted
          of 2 or 3 word sentences, where the words were simple invariable words
          which probably did not pattern as nouns and verbs, although they would
          naturally have referred to objects and actions due to our experience of
          the world. He does allow a basic world order of SOV (not sure how he
          squares this with "no nouns or verbs"!). There are no adjectives,
          prepositions or other frippery.

          He starts at this stage because his claim is that existing, observed
          tendencies of language change can work on this stage to create modern
          language, but he believes that we cannot know what forces brought speech
          *to* the multi-word stage.

          Now, to summarize the chapter...

          Let me quote his initial example story, and perhaps you will see why I
          found it a bit patronizing-sounding:

          girl fruit pick turn mammoth see
          girl run tree reach climb mammoth tree shake
          girl yell yell father run spear throw
          mammoth roar fall
          father stone take meat cut girl give
          girl eat finish sleep

          He states about this that "speakers of any language would be able to
          follow it without any problem, as long as they understood the meaning
          of each word" because it "does not rely on any rules peculiar to [...]
          the grammar of any other particular language", since "the words are
          strung together according to a few natural principles, which are rooted
          in the deepest levels of our cognition". That may very well be true,
          but it is the sort of claim which sounds quackish.

          Next he goes into more detail about his "me Tarzan" stage of the language.
          He believes that we should start with only words for physical things,
          simple actions, and the closed class "this" and "that", which he justifies
          despite their abstractness since they usually accompany the act of
          pointing. He spends a couple of pages explaining that his word order
          above is based on keeping related words together (OV?), actor-first (S..),
          and chronological order. Digresses to show ancient example of text strung
          together with "and" keeping phrases in chronological order, states that
          today's complex web of conjunctions is a recent invention. I remember
          reading something to that effect about Native American languages that
          imported conjunctions from Spanish, possibly in Mithun...

          Next he reminds us that the brain is predisposed to see structure and
          organize hierarchically, and that he is not taking a stand in the debates
          over exactly *how* this relates to language (he is Chomsky-agnostic).
          With that he gets down to business.

          First topic to tackle: "this" and "that". Better justification for
          including them as primary words: he claims that in no language have
          "this" and "that" been traced back to any more concrete origin, only
          alternating with "here" and "there" which are often built on "this"
          and "that" and vice versa. Again mentions the pointing, and says that
          that is why "this" and "that" are more basic than other words with
          shifting references (such as "here", "there", and all pronouns). In
          fact, he then shows that pronouns develop from "this", "that" and,
          where applicable, "that yonder", with language examples.

          Having provided pronouns, he moves on to ways to include oblique
          participants in clauses, i.e., adpositions. His 2- and 3-word
          sentence language had only actors and patients. He states that
          multiple simple clauses can collapse into one clause via a verb
          turning into a pre- or post-position, and provides examples from
          a number of languages. He then declares "and" invented since it
          can develop from "with".

          Next he attacks adjectives. He shows that basic words for property
          objects have been known to develop from words for objects notable for
          that property, i.e., red from blood, sharp from shard. Then he
          embarks on a completely gratuitous metaphor regarding the "double life"
          of property words, their "high life" as predicates (a word he does not
          use to avoid scaring us) and their "low life" as "appendages" to the
          noun. This is the sort of ridiculous paraphrase he uses throughout
          the book, BTW.

          His justification for how the "property words" became "appendages"
          is rather threadbare. He claims that "this" and "that" would have
          begun to be used next to the relevant noun, as in "this stone" or
          "stone, that" due to the simple need to disambiguate. I gather that
          he is trying to say that juxtaposition of two nouns could be
          interpreted by the next generation as a noun and an attribute. Now
          that I put it that way, it makes more sense. Anyway, he says that
          once you have "this" and "that" in a modifier-modified relationship
          with a noun, people could begin using property words the same way
          by analogy, giving us adjectives.

          Then he writes "once the principle of appendagehood has been established
          with one type of appendage, the flood-gates have been opened, and a
          stream of other types can gush in: plural markers, quantifiers, articles,
          possessives and so on". He then addresses each of the above in a bullet
          list of paragraphs to show from what pre-existing words they could have
          sprung. Having justified all of these noun modifiers, he claims the
          speakers of the language would have started using them all together
          to create complex noun phrases, and would also have been open to the
          idea of stacking modifiers on modifiers, both via simple modifications
          to the adjective such as comparitives and superlatives, and via
          recursion of, for example, possessives.

          Then he hops over to the verb to bring it up to speed. But first he
          explains why the syntactic categories of nouns and verbs are different
          than the distinction between action words and object words, and declares
          that his language has developed abstract noun concepts (it must have
          done so in order for his property words to have developed from nouns,
          for example) and therefore now has a syntactic noun-verb distinction.
          Provides an interesting example (the derivation of the suffix -hood)
          to demonstrate abstraction from nouns.

          Another interesting discussion with examples: the fact that nouns are
          seen to easily give rise to verbs, sometimes simply being verbed
          wholesale, but that nominalization of verbs has been seen to arise
          late and usually as a back-formation from a related verb and abstract
          noun both derived from the same concrete noun. I did not know this.
          Uses Old French -age to demonstrate.

          Now he addresses verbs. Refers to previous chapters showing how
          tense markers and causative/passive forms have been seen to develop from
          separate words. Interesting demonstration of the progressive abstractification
          of verb to possession to obligation to marker of likelihood, right here
          in English: "get me a beer" -> "he's got a car" -> "I've gotta go" ->
          "she's gotta be there by now". He seems to have a point.

          Finally says that his language has developed the necessary preconditions
          to develop subordination. Nominalized verbs can become attributes to nouns.
          He anthropomorphizes a bit and says that verbs are "used to being at the
          centre of the action, with numerous participants crowding around them" and
          therefore would drag other participants in along with them, creating the
          first relative clause (albeit using participles). He then hand-waves
          around how the true relative clause with finite verb form and relative-
          clause marker such as "that" developed, saying that it happened before
          attested examples and must have been driven by the need for clearer, more
          explicit relative clauses. He declares victory, as it were, and saunters
          into the epilogue.

          Not so bad, really, and the examples are very good. I just found the
          father-killing-(singlehandedly!?)-the-mammoth-for-his-daughter story a
          bit too precious.

          Amanda
          Late to bed!
        • Philip Newton
          ... Sounds like the language my daughter (2y 4m) speaks... Baby - bed and baby - sleep are both likely sentences, for example. The first looks like
          Message 4 of 9 , Jan 1, 2007
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            On 1/2/07, Amanda Babcock Furrow <langs@...> wrote:
            > His first premise: that there existed a stage where language consisted
            > of 2 or 3 word sentences, where the words were simple invariable words
            > which probably did not pattern as nouns and verbs, although they would
            > naturally have referred to objects and actions due to our experience of
            > the world.

            Sounds like the "language" my daughter (2y 4m) speaks... "Baby - bed"
            and "baby - sleep" are both likely sentences, for example. The first
            looks like noun-noun while the second like noun-verb, but I'm not sure
            whether this is a useful distinction to make at this point.

            > He does allow a basic world order of SOV (not sure how he
            > squares this with "no nouns or verbs"!). There are no adjectives,
            > prepositions or other frippery.

            Hm. My daughter may be ahead of him here, at least if we apply English
            part-of-speech categories to "Amyish": she has "zusammen" (together)
            and "mit" (with), which look like adverbs and/or prepositions. Again,
            though, not sure whether it's useful to use those labels in her
            syntactically simple sentences. (The second is (nearly?) always in
            connection with "kommen", so I'm not sure whether to analyse "mit -
            komm" as the German verb "mitkommen" (to come with, to come along) or
            as two separate words.)

            She's also got "an" and "aus" (on and off, for lights); "ein" and
            "aus"/"out" (in and out, for getting into semi-enclosed spaces such as
            her egg chair, for example), which seem more
            adverb/preposition/adjective-like to me. And for about amonth or so,
            she knows colour names, though since she doesn't seem to use them
            predicatively or attributively, those might better be considered nouns
            at this stage.

            Oh, and of course "no" -- that's certainly not a noun, and not really
            a verb, but something I imagine most language users will come up with
            sooner or later :) And "okay" (and sometimes "ja") for the opposite.

            On the other hand, she grew up listening to people speaking German and
            English, rather than "me Tarzan"-ish, so she's simply borrowing words
            she hears from sentences with higher syntactical complexity.

            For the most part, though, her speech is one-word or two-word
            (occasionally three-word) sentences composed of invariable words that
            look noun-ish or verb-ish -- more frequently the former.

            Perhaps the most interesting word, though is "ah", which can mean,
            depending on the situation, "What is the name of this thing I'm
            holding here/pointing at?", "I can tell you're asking me for the name
            of this object, but I don't know it", "I can tell you're asking me for
            the name of this object, but I can't think of it just now" (typically
            repeated once or twice and then often followed by her name for the
            object once she's remembered it).

            > Let me quote his initial example story, and perhaps you will see why I
            > found it a bit patronizing-sounding:
            >
            > girl fruit pick turn mammoth see
            > girl run tree reach climb mammoth tree shake
            > girl yell yell father run spear throw
            > mammoth roar fall
            > father stone take meat cut girl give
            > girl eat finish sleep

            That actually sounds a bit more "developed" than Amyish; I imagine her
            version would involve a fair bit more repetition of actors, rather
            than "pro-drop" sentences such as many of the ones here.

            Cheers,
            --
            Philip Newton <philip.newton@...>
          • Jonathan Knibb
            ... I got The Unfolding of Language (Guy Deutscher, 2005, Metropolitan Books, NY) for Christmas [...] It gave me a feeling that I should be doing a great deal
            Message 5 of 9 , Jan 2, 2007
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              Amanda Babcock Furrow wrote:
              >>>
              I got The Unfolding of Language (Guy Deutscher, 2005, Metropolitan
              Books, NY) for Christmas
              [...]
              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 diachronically.
              <<<

              So did I, and it made me feel the same way. I agree with Amanda's review
              in general, except that I wasn't irritated by the 'hammering home', and
              I was disappointed rather than embarrassed by the mammoth story - I was
              expecting the author to address questions which he claims are obviously
              unanswerable (like how proto-language developed from non-language).

              Definitely worth reading.

              Jonathan.
            • Lars Finsen
              ... Whoa, that was a *long* outline. But thanks! ... I think attributive words must have come in very early, to divide objects and events into categories like
              Message 6 of 9 , Jan 2, 2007
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                Den 2. jan. 2007 kl. 05.54 skrev Amanda Babcock Furrow:
                >
                > Ok, I will attempt it...

                Whoa, that was a *long* outline. But thanks!

                > His first premise: that there existed a stage where language consisted
                > of 2 or 3 word sentences, where the words were simple invariable words
                > which probably did not pattern as nouns and verbs, although they would
                > naturally have referred to objects and actions due to our
                > experience of
                > the world. He does allow a basic world order of SOV (not sure how he
                > squares this with "no nouns or verbs"!). There are no adjectives,
                > prepositions or other frippery.

                I think attributive words must have come in very early, to divide
                objects and events into categories like good, bad, dangerous, fun,
                etc. as well as to express opinions about things and beings. He is
                perhaps guilty of a typically male mistake by supposing that the most
                fundamental things in our minds are the objects around us. Even
                chimps have their own words for these attributes, and more.

                > He starts at this stage because his claim is that existing, observed
                > tendencies of language change can work on this stage to create modern
                > language, but he believes that we cannot know what forces brought
                > speech
                > *to* the multi-word stage.

                What the next generations of language origin theorists need to deal
                with I think is the fact that much of the early development of
                language took place in species that were differently equipped than
                ourselves. Once we get to our species, I think language was rather
                well-developed, or it developed to a pretty decent level of
                sophistication rather quickly. Perhaps not with the same complexity
                as today, but I do think we had the equipment to understand and
                develop many of the complexities of language from the start, and used
                it.

                > Let me quote his initial example story, and perhaps you will see why I
                > found it a bit patronizing-sounding:
                >
                > girl fruit pick turn mammoth see
                > girl run tree reach climb mammoth tree shake
                > girl yell yell father run spear throw
                > mammoth roar fall
                > father stone take meat cut girl give
                > girl eat finish sleep
                >
                > He states about this that "speakers of any language would be able to
                > follow it without any problem, as long as they understood the meaning
                > of each word"

                Perhaps, except it sounds like he first gives meat to the girl and
                then eats her. Or he cuts the meat, girl gives it to him, and she
                eats it. No. Already at this stage you need a way to distinguish
                subject from object, and/or perhaps pronouns.

                > because it "does not rely on any rules peculiar to [...]
                > the grammar of any other particular language", since "the words are
                > strung together according to a few natural principles, which are
                > rooted
                > in the deepest levels of our cognition". That may very well be true,
                > but it is the sort of claim which sounds quackish.

                Wrong wording perhaps. Today it's more fashionable to use terms like
                "hardwired", I think.

                > Next he goes into more detail about his "me Tarzan" stage of the
                > language.
                > He believes that we should start with only words for physical things,
                > simple actions, and the closed class "this" and "that", which he
                > justifies
                > despite their abstractness since they usually accompany the act of
                > pointing.

                I also have noted that the distinction here, there, yonder is
                something that seems to lie very deeply within us. Possibly something
                we inherited from our ancestral species. It extends to this, that,
                that yonder, and I, you, it, and perhaps other aspects as well, of
                language as well as of other more or less traditional ways of
                expressing ourselves.

                > Next he attacks adjectives. He shows that basic words for property
                > objects have been known to develop from words for objects notable for
                > that property, i.e., red from blood, sharp from shard. Then he
                > embarks on a completely gratuitous metaphor regarding the "double
                > life"
                > of property words, their "high life" as predicates (a word he does not
                > use to avoid scaring us)

                Yuh - scary word.

                > and their "low life" as "appendages" to the
                > noun. This is the sort of ridiculous paraphrase he uses throughout
                > the book, BTW.

                You mean, to avoid using all that Latin terminology? Actually I'm not
                too great a fan of all that Latin myself. Linguistic terminology
                tends to need so much memorising, because they often lack any obvious
                intuitive link to their content. Also because I came to them
                relatively late in life, perhaps...

                > Not so bad, really, and the examples are very good. I just found the
                > father-killing-(singlehandedly!?)-the-mammoth-for-his-daughter story a
                > bit too precious.

                The content of the story wasn't really the point I believe. But
                perhaps the choice wasn't very good. A bit too much of an old-
                fashioned hero-rescues-blonde type of story. Maybe girls should kill
                their mammoths themselves? I reckon Ayla usually needs help from some
                friends in order to slay one.

                Thanks for the abstract. Interesting and more or less plausible here
                and there. Some ideas on what's old and new in language are always
                welcome. I didn't know that verbalising nouns was older than
                nominalising verbs that way, though I've heard infinitives are fairly
                recent. Have to check out that more.

                LEF
              • Eric Christopherson
                ... I read it just before Christmas. It was recommended to me first by a member of the linguists community on Livejournal, when I asked there if anyone had
                Message 7 of 9 , Jan 2, 2007
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                  On Dec 31, 2006, at 8:25 PM, Amanda Babcock Furrow wrote:

                  > 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.

                  I read it just before Christmas. It was recommended to me first by a
                  member of the "linguists" community on Livejournal, when I asked
                  there if anyone had information or hypotheses on how Semitic root/
                  template/pattern morphology got started. Subsequently, Donald Boozer
                  and Chris Peters on CONLANG also recommended it to me.

                  >
                  > 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 was a little concerned that it would be too basic, before I started
                  reading, but once I got into it there really was a lot of information
                  which I didn't know, but probably should have. After checking it out
                  from a library, I'm considering buying it to reread and consult later.

                  > 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.

                  There was a little of that, but luckily for me it didn't seem to slow
                  down the reading.

                  >
                  > 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 material on the Semitic verb system (which I believe was Ch. 6
                  and one or two of the appendices) was really an eye-opener for me. It
                  basically hypothesizes that the cause of nonconcatenative (root/
                  template/pattern) morphology consisted of a few sound changes and a
                  lot of analogy and back-formation. It's fairly speculative, but with
                  a good dose of (I think) sound reasoning. Its speculativity shouldn't
                  turn conlangers off anyway, since, even if the real Semitic languages
                  *didn't* develop that way, it can still be used as a good example of
                  how to achieve a similar sort of nonconcatenative morphology in a
                  conlang, starting from a purely concatenative basis.

                  This was the most valuable part of the book for me. I have tried
                  working out this sort of morphology diachronically starting from a
                  purely concatenative system before, and never had much luck. I think
                  my lack of success has been due to my concentration on arriving there
                  through sound change alone (which Deutscher actually states cannot
                  have produced it in the real world). Although I have known about
                  analogy for a while (and even heard that it was involved in the
                  development of the Semitic system), it has been hard to actually
                  *remember* to use it in my conlanging. I think the examples of it
                  Deutscher gives will help me to make more use of it.

                  (I just wish he'd written a whole book about the development of
                  Semitic morphology. The few patterns whose origin he postulates are a
                  small fraction of the complexity of the mature Semitic system, but as
                  he says, just a few patterns were probably enough to get the ball
                  rolling, with patterns accumulating via analogy over hundreds or
                  thousands of years subsequently. Luckily he lists a lot of sources
                  for further reading.)

                  >
                  > 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
                  > diachronically.

                  I just wish he had given more information on the tendency of more
                  frequent words to "wear down" more quickly. The model of sound change
                  I've internalized is the Neogrammarian one, which (as I understand
                  it) holds that sound changes affect *equally* all words at a given
                  point. Although I know that that is no longer believed to be true, it
                  is hard for me to break out of that line of thinking -- if I am
                  designing a diachronic conlang and decide a given sound change only
                  happens in a few words, I feel like I am in some sense "cheating," if
                  I don't come up with damn good reasons for the unequal treatment. And
                  I believe Neogrammarian sound change is still considered useful in
                  comparative and historical linguistics, perhaps the same way that
                  Newtonian physics is still useful.

                  But I digress. I would just like Deutscher to explain about both
                  conceptualizations of sound change, and explain what the current
                  thinking in linguistics is, and how they relate to each other, and
                  perhaps to give some evidence and/or reasoning for *why* certain
                  words change more quickly than others. (If anyone out there on the
                  list has a good grounding in this, I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

                  >
                  > 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.

                  It's a little silly, especially the label "Me Tarzan" (which, as
                  Deutscher notes, was never actually uttered by Tarzan in the book or
                  movies). But then I don't know what I would call it, especially if I
                  were trying to avoid "scary" technical words.

                  Overall for me the chapter works pretty well. I hope to use it as a
                  blueprint for developing a conlang from a "Me Tarzan" stage some day.
                  I wasn't quite convinced about the emergence of embedded clauses with
                  finite verbs. I think more information in that area would be good,
                  but then perhaps it'd be too technical.

                  >
                  > 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.
                  >
                  > tylakehlpe'fo,
                  > Amanda
                • Donald Boozer
                  So, as I understand, your major misgiving about the book s Me, Tarzan phase is the fact that he uses the mammoth story and not a more politically correct
                  Message 8 of 9 , Jan 2, 2007
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                    So, as I understand, your major misgiving about the
                    book's "Me, Tarzan" phase is the fact that he uses the
                    mammoth story and not a more politically correct
                    narrative? Would it have been more palatable with
                    something like: girl pick fruit give boy boy girl
                    eat etc. You seem to have positive comments to make
                    about his actual assertions.
                    IMHO, I think Deutscher does an excellent job in
                    laying out some basic premises of historical
                    linguistics, and, hopefully, encourages people to
                    search out more complex and challenging texts. And for
                    those who don't, his book gives them a (very) basic
                    understanding of how language might have evolved. The
                    Unfolding of Language is (currently) one of my
                    favorite books both on language in general and for
                    conlanging specifically. I am hoping to try out the
                    "Me, Tarzan" procedures in constructing a conlang from
                    scratch someday. I agree that the "Me, Tarzan"
                    terminology is "too cute," but it should be remembered
                    that the author is targetting a general audience and
                    most people think of "Me, Tarzan" as a primitive form
                    of language.

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                  • daniel prohaska
                    Donald, I agree. I also thought the book was an enjoyable read and furthermore I finally got the feeling I cracked the principle behind Semitic verbal
                    Message 9 of 9 , Jan 5, 2007
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                      Donald, I agree. I also thought the book was an enjoyable read and
                      furthermore I finally got the feeling I cracked the principle behind Semitic
                      verbal morphology which had me somewhat perplexed before coming from an
                      Indo-European academic background.

                      Thumbs up, Mr Deutscher,

                      Dan


                      From: Donald Boozer
                      Sent: Wednesday, January 03, 2007 5:20 AM
                      "So, as I understand, your major misgiving about the book's "Me, Tarzan"
                      phase is the fact that he uses the mammoth story and not a more politically
                      correct narrative? Would it have been more palatable with something like:
                      girl pick fruit give boy boy girl eat etc. You seem to have positive
                      comments to make about his actual assertions.

                      IMHO, I think Deutscher does an excellent job in laying out some basic
                      premises of historical linguistics, and, hopefully, encourages people to
                      search out more complex and challenging texts. And for those who don't, his
                      book gives them a (very) basic understanding of how language might have
                      evolved. The Unfolding of Language is (currently) one of my favorite books
                      both on language in general and for conlanging specifically. I am hoping to
                      try out the "Me, Tarzan" procedures in constructing a conlang from scratch
                      someday. I agree that the "Me, Tarzan" terminology is "too cute," but it
                      should be remembered that the author is targetting a general audience and
                      most people think of "Me, Tarzan" as a primitive form of language.
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