A few months ago I issued a preliminary report on Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language; prompted by a request from C. Max Magee of The Millions to name my favorite language books of the year (he’s posted them here), I decided it was high time I gave a final assessment. I enjoyed the book a great deal and hope a lot of people read it; it gives a good sense of how language changes and what it is historical linguists study, and it’s written very engagingly, with digressions and interpolated dialogues à la Hofstadter.
But I have one major gripe with it, which is that the latter part of the book is increasingly taken up with Deutscher’s own theories about the origin of the Semitic verbal system, with its fixed grid of consonants and changing vowel patterns. It’s a very interesting topic to a linguist, but to include it in a book for the general reader is a bad idea: the reader is not in a position to judge the theory, and is likely to accept it simply because the book is enjoyable and the rest of the information seems reliable. It’s like sticking an untried medicine in with the Halloween candy. I would have advised Deutscher to save the Semitic verbs for a specialized journal and use the space saved with more examples of undoubted linguistic facts to dazzle and educate the lay reader.
But that’s water under the bridge. The book is as it is, and it’s a fine read anyway. Go forth, Unfolding, and spread enlightenment!


  1. Don’t keep us in suspense… what’s the theory?

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    I think you have a point. I am a reasonably well informed layman, but not on Semitic languages in particular, and I interpreted the Semitic bits as accepted in the field. This is a common problem with this sort of book, with the author not clearly distinguishing between exposition of accepted wisdom and arguing his case. Steven Pinker does the same thing. It is annoying. But I enjoyed the book and learned stuff I didn’t know before.

  3. what’s the theory?
    Too complicated to summarize here. You’ll have to read the book. (He takes it in stages, and there isn’t a single overarching explanation for the whole system.)

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