THE UNFOLDING OF LANGUAGE.

The good people at Metropolitan Books sent me a copy of Guy Deutscher’s new book, The Unfolding of Language; I’m only a little over halfway through it, but I’ve accumulated enough things I want to talk about I thought I’d better start now, and leave the summing up for when I finish it. I will say that it’s a great pleasure to read a book on historical linguistics written for the layperson by an actual linguist, and I hope lots of people read it and get a better idea of how languages change, so they can understand how pointless are all the demands for preservation, warnings of doom, and nostalgic looks back at an imagined time of linguistic perfection from which we’ve supposedly degenerated. (On this subject, read the excerpt from Chapter 3 here to be convinced that “the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.”)
To the details, then! The first thing that made me want to start blogging was a picture on page 117; it’s in black and white in the book, but you can see it in glorious color towards the end of the excerpts page. It shows a Greek moving van blazoned with the word ΜΕΤΑΦΟΡΕΣ [metaforés], which is the normal Greek word for ‘moves, removals’; as Deutscher says, “meta-phora is Greek for ‘carry across’ (meta = ‘across’, phor = ‘carry’). Or to use the Latin equivalent, meta-phor just means trans-fer.” I used to see such signs in Astoria (the heavily Greek part of Queens where I used to live), and I’d point them out to whoever I was walking with and explain that “metaphor” is a basic everyday word in Greek; I’m delighted to be able to send everyone to this picture (and get a nostalgic thrill myself).


The other thing I had to get off my chest involves a classic joke he tells on page 153:

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story about the two Jewish merchants in Poland who bump into each other at the train station in Warsaw one morning. Both are competitors in the same trade, so they eye each other suspiciously, and one of them asks, ‘So where are you travelling today?’ ‘To Łódz,’ comes the cautious answer. ‘To Łódz, eh?’ the first says skeptically. ‘I know very well that you are only telling me that to make me think that you are actually going to Krakow. But — I happen to know that you really are going to Łódz…’ And after a little pause he adds: ‘So tell me: why are you trying to deceive me?’

Now, the minor point is that “Łódz” is misspelled: it should be Łódź, with a palatal z (the name is pronounced more or less “wooj” in Polish, like “wouldja” [=”would you”] without the final vowel). The main point is that it seems odd to use the Polish spelling at all. The city is normally written Lodz in English, without any accents, so there would be nothing unusual in spelling it that way; furthermore, in Jewish jokes involving Eastern Europe (this joke is also told about Minsk and Pinsk, and I’m sure there are other versions), the protagonists are assumed to be speaking Yiddish, and in Yiddish the name is pronounced /lodz/, exactly how you’d read the normal English spelling, [or /lodž/, like English lodge but with the vowel of low]. So why go out of your way to use an “accurate” Polish spelling that implies a pronunciation foreign to the joke? I don’t know if the spelling was the author’s choice or a copy editor’s decision, but I think it was a mistake. As always, however, I welcome disagreement.

Comments

  1. Hello, again!
    I am beside myself with delight at the Guy Deutscher excerpt I was able to access through your comments.
    That whopper of a Turkish word that he quotes, I believe, ends with a reference to “deniz” which is Turkish for “sea”–I am curious if I am making a false connection, if there IS a connection, or if my speculation is just that: hooey.
    Greetings from Istanbul and Kumbaraci Yokusu, the latter meaning l-o-n-g hill. Which it is.
    A.P

  2. Sorry that I probably have to disappoint you, A.P., but I don’t see “deniz”, the Turkish word for “sea” in that delightful Turkish monster-word. It ends in -densiniz, and I think “den” is the ablative case ending (corresponding to “of”). The rest would then serve to inflect it for second person singular “you are”). My Turkish is far from good, but it’s a fun language to study! And Deutscher’s book sure sounds like a fun read, so thanks for linking to the excerpts, language hat.

  3. I’m afraid Deas is right. (I wish I could revisit Istanbul, one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited!)

  4. Tim May says:

    I was going to post the following last night, but comments weren’t working.
    Oh, good. I’d seen the book for sale, and was hoping someone I trusted on the subject would review it.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story about the two Jewish merchants…

    Would you believe I read this story for the first time this very day in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish? (It was the Minsk/Pinsk version.)

  5. Actually, many Yiddish speakers call it /lodzh/, or, if they’re actually from the city, /ludzh/. (There are some Polish Jews who would pronounce it /wudzh/, but that’s neither here nor there.)

  6. Just to confirm Zackary’s comment above. I usually hear it pronounced Loj (O as in low, not “lodge”).

  7. OK, I’ll emend my post.

  8. Michael Farris says:

    Sort of off-topic, people _from_ modern Łódź usually say Miasto Łódź (miasto = city) a coordinate construction where both get declined as in “jestem z Miasta Łodzi” (I’m from Lodz).
    Everybody else just says Łódź and I’ve never heard of a good (or convincing) explanation of why the local residents add the ‘miasto’.

  9. The Minsk/Pinsk version is much funnier…

  10. I read ‘the unfolding of language’ a couple of months ago and it was the best book I’ve read in a long time. Everything in it was fascinating, and there were many topics explained in an accessible way that are otherwise completely mystifying; the reason for words with ‘f’ in English having ‘p’ in Latin, and so on. I would certainly say that anyone with the slightest interest in language should read it immediately, and especially those people that whinge about language decline. It strikes exactly the right balance between communicating a lot of detailed information, and being enjoyable to read.

  11. Dear Languagehat and commentators,
    Someone brought to my attention your illuminating discussion of the (mis)spelling of Lodz in my book, and since such a grave matter is at stake, I thought I’d come clean and let you know that it was a simple oversight.
    My original text file had all the accents (Łódź), but the accent on the z must have disappeared in the conversion to the publisher’s format, and I didn’t notice that in the proofs.
    But I also take the point that a simple Lodz would have been better anyway. And I even take the point that Minsk/Pinsk is much funnier. (I wasn’t aware of that version.) So – if I can change it in the paperback edition, Lodz will be spelled Pinsk.

  12. Aha, now everything is illuminated! Thanks for dropping by and explaining, and I’m delighted that (assuming the change is made in paperback) LH will have had a measurable impact on the world.
    I’m still enjoying the book, by the way, and will be reporting further in due course.

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