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.