The Unfolding of Language

9 min read

Man speak.



  • The word “going” transitioned slowly from talking about movement to talking about the future.
    • You can say “I’m going to Basingstoke” or “I’m going to wash the dishes” or “I’m gonna eat that in a minute”.
    • You can’t say “I’m gonna Basingstoke”.
  • Chimpanzees, when trained by humans, can be taught to communicate in a much more sophisticated way than they ever do naturally.
  • Humans are amazing; you can take a baby from any part of the globe, plonk it anywhere on earth, say in Indonesian Bornero, and within only a few years it will grow up to speak fluent and flawless Indonesian.

A Castle in the Air

  • Phrases of wisdom are just word play: “better to lose a moment in life than to lose life in a moment”.
  • Speakers of a language don’t have to sign up for a crash course in syntax to know how sentences work.
  • Complexity is mitigated by the hierarchy of command – we can build up complex sentences through combinations of clauses.
  • The order of words doesn’t matter as much in other languages as it does in English, e.g. Hebrew marks the object of a clause by putting “et” before it.
  • Verbal roots in Semitic are groups of three consonants like s-l-m which get slotted into vowel templates like XaXiXa -> salima. “Islam” and “Muslim” are related this way.
  • It feels like such a beautiful algebraic scheme could only have been conceived by a gifted designer – the point of this book is to explore how such conventions naturally evolve.
  • Genders are weird, in German you’d say “Where is the turnip? // She has gone to the kitchen” but “Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? // It has gone to the opera”.

Perpetual Motion

  • Language is constantly changing.
  • “Spoon” used to mean a thin piece of wood, a chip or a splinter.
  • The conventions of spelling might not have changed much over the centuries, but pronounciation has hugely.
  • When two dialects of what used to be the same language are no longer mutually intelligible, they are called different languages.
  • Change in language doesn’t come from deisgn, but the accumulated spontaneous actions of short-cutters who take the quickest route.
  • The motives for change in language form a triad: economy, expressiveness and analogy.
  • The plural of books used to be /bek/; one book, many bek.
  • A spade would be just as good a name for a spoon as a spoon would be for a spade.
  • Some language change is dangerous – imagine what it would be like to drive if the Highway Code kept on changing whilst you were on the road.
  • “Resent” used to mean a positive thing.
  • Change is underway right now: people say “fink” and “fursday”, “dreamed” and “dreamt”, “shedule” and “skedule”, “am I not” and “aren’t I”.
  • Fish used to be pronounced like “pisk”.
  • Some people’s variation catches on.
  • Fast used to only mean “secure” or “not moving” but now means moving quickly most of the time.
  • To discover how linguistic structures rise and fall, you have to look in the predictable and systematic aspects of change.
  • Random variation is just noise, and need not distract us from enjoying the music.

The Forces of Destruction

  • Elders of Idleford story:

Firstly the ‘k’ was changed to ‘ch’ as the tongue only had to be raised half of the way it had been before. Then to make easier the ‘ch’ was made ‘h’ as the tongue did not have to touch the roof of the mouth at all. Finally an Idleford elder suggested removing this sound altogether. The fairytale was trying to show that “correct” pronunciation disappears due to laziness; however Deutscher believes that language changes due to the desire to be more efficient when speaking and make your point more quickly. An example of this is ‘ot instead of ‘hot’.

  • Grimm’s Law: the sound changes that some languages make follows a predictable pattern.
  • The principle of least effort: pronounce as little as you can get away with.
  • Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia.
  • The French marker for “no”, “pas”, originally meant “step” and was used in phrases like “I’m not going a step” but over time gradually changed to be more and more general.
  • A similar story happened with the English “not” which was originally used in phrases like “nothing whatsoever” but slowly became more gradual over time.
  • People have started saying “Would you like a bag at all?”. Maybe “at all” is going to become the new question marker.
  • “Would you like a bag at all?” actually means “Do you have even the slightest desire to recieve a bag from me?”.
  • Could end up with “would you like a bag tall?”, “actually, could you give me two tall?”, “madam, plastic or paper tall?”.
  • Language seems to be constantly degrading, so it would make sense that back in the day there was some “Golden Age of Perfection” right? No.

A Reef of Dead Metaphors

  • Metaphor actually means “transfer” in latin. It’s about carrying across meaning.
  • People use metaphors to convey abstract meaning which slowly lose their original meaning (e.g. thrilled). Language is built from a reef of dead metaphors.
  • The word for curb is a piece of metal put in horses' moths to control their movement.
  • Concrete terms are slowly transferred from their original domains to their abstract domains.
  • “A skeleton that betrays no trace of its metaphoric origin”.
  • “Rival” comes from the word “rivalis” in Latin meaning someone who shares the same river. Then it meant someone who shared the same mistress (“a rival in love”) and then to “rival” more generally.
  • Most languages don’t have a verb that corresponds to the English ‘have’ and use other techniques for expressing possession".
  • “Language is nothing but a dictionary of faded metaphors”
  • There is no known language where spatial terms are not used to descrive temporal relations (e.g. forward in time, forward in space).
  • Time cannot literally be “long” or “short” and cannot literally “pass”.
  • A big source of metaphors are body parts because they are the closest and most immediate things in our physical environment, e.g. “ahead” or the “back” of something.

The Forces of Creation

  • There is the desire to enhance our expressive range on the one hand, and laziness on the other.
  • “Go” turnt into a future marker because it’s the most obvious source for the abstract concept of future.
  • “Will” turns into another future marker because it’s the concept of wanting to desire.
  • When two words like “going to” appear together extremely frequently, the border between them can lost its relevance and can eventually fuse into one.
  • The sound language makes came long before how it was written. Languages where the pronoun sound appears before the word often get turnt into seperate words like “Je suis”, but when it comes after it will turn into an ending on the verb instead.
  • The destruction in language doesn’t mean were going to communicate soley in grunts soon, it’s a cycle. People pile words up into longer phrases to increase expressiveness and the cycle starts over again.
  • “aujourd’hui” literally means “on the day of this-day”. Some french speakers have started saying “au jour d’aujourd’hui” which means “on the day of on the day of this day”.
  • “up above” literally means “up on by on up”.
  • The forces of language are a tireless compressing machine: erosion keeps pounding the words together making them shorter and shorter, but shortened words get put into longer expressions and then combine together into new words.

Craving for Order

  • “grot” was born after people said “grotesque + y => grotty” and people followed the rules of removing the “y” to make something a noun.
  • “Pease” used to be the word for the singular “pea”, but people misinterpreted it as a plural and formed the new word.
  • The simplest and most common words often have the most irregularity because they manage to cling on to the acient traits that have disappeared elsewhere in the language.

The Unfolding of Language

  • The author suggests complicated lanugage was born out of three main primitive word categories:
    • Words for physical things.
    • Words for simple actions.
    • Pointing words like “this” and “that”.
  • “This” and “that” might have flowed from the concrete pointing gesture to a more abstract concept referencing something else. Young children only accompany “this” and “that” with a pointing gesture.
  • Adjectives grew out of words that referred to objects that happened to have a striking property and over time came to denote the property more generally.
    • This is especially true for color words.
    • “Red” sometimes comes from the word “blood” (like in Hebrew).
    • “Green” comes from the words for plants or growth (like in English).
    • “Small” sometimes comes from the word for baby.
  • “of” originally denoted a simple physical relation, a direction from “out of” something. “Piece of meat” meant a “piece from the meat”, but came to mean possesion more generally.
  • “the” is just an eroded form of “that”.
  • “a” is just a shortened form of “an” which is a shortened version of “one”.
  • Recursion means the complexity of language can emerge.


  • The elaborate conventions of language need no gifted inventor to conceive them.
  • They instead emerge from much more spontaneous and immediate concerns, such as:
    • Saving effort in pronounciation (economy).
    • Heightening the effect of an utterance (expressiveness).


An amazing book! I wish I’d read this a long time ago, back when I was still interested in constructed languages (I think I actually tried following a tutorial for inventing a language once but gave up because it turned out that that sort of thing is hard). Not only was the overall thesis of the book brilliant – roughly that changes in language emerge from cycles of people being lazy with pronunciation, using metaphors to convey abstract ideas and using lots of little words to be more expressive – it was beautifully written. I liked how the chapter about metaphors was literally a metaphor in itself, where dead metaphors form a “reef”.

I learnt so many fun facts too, like:

  • Spoon used to mean a chip of wood, not an actual spoon.
  • The word for green comes from the word “grow”.
  • “a” is just a shortened form of “one”.
  • “rival” used to mean someone of the same river.

It was also pretty cool seeing him talk about all these things that seemed far off and only in exotic languages, and then to make an example in English! Like how “at all” might eventually become a polite question marker.

date: 2021-08-16 09:55
finished: true
rating: 8.5
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title: The Unfolding of Language