The Galapagos of Language

I am currently engaged in a really original book: “The Unfolding of Language: an evolutionary tour of mankind’s greatest invention” by Guy Deutscher. I thought you might be interested too, so I’m reporting.

Deutscher, an Israeli academic now teaching at Leiden, analyses the structures of current language as fossil traces of what went before. It’s a delightful and bravura performance, as he explains why (for example) the Hebrew word ‘panim’ (‘face’) becomes absorbed and transformed into the conjunctions ‘li-fnei’ (‘before’) and ‘mi-pnei’ (‘because’). Another example: the suffixes that identify the future tense in French (‘-ai’, etc.) are present-tense forms of the verb ‘to have’. He examines how ‘have’, which began as a simple physically based word meaning possession, acquired the abstract notion of futurity and was then demoted into being a suffix.

For language freaks (and I know you’re out there!), this is a fascinating book. I’m enjoying it a lot. Perhaps you might too.


Every word is like an unnecessary strain on silence and nothingness. – Samuel Beckett, Irish playwright


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