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The word from the beginning

Author traces growth, variation of language

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN





NEW YORK (CNN) -- Ask Guy Deutscher about a flower, and you get a mini-history of the evolution of language.

Not flowers, the pretty item you buy for a loved one. "Flower," the word.

"The example itself really seems rather trivial," the author of "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention" (Metropolitan), said in an interview. "The Latin word for 'flower' is irregular, since some of its forms are pronounced with 's' (flos, "flower") and others with 'r' (flor-is, "of the flower").

"But behind this apparently insignificant example," he continued, "there are vital questions about the nature of language: first, why is there so much mess and irregularity all over the place? Second, this example demonstrates that when you look at the history of language, suddenly so much of this mess is tidied up."

Which brings up yet another point, he adds.

"If every irregularity goes back to an earlier regular form, then the implication seems to be that once upon a time there was a golden age of linguistic perfection, in which everything was regular," he said. "And that since that distant era, language has just been going downhill.

"But if so, why? And how did languages get to that 'golden age' in the first place?"

That's what Deutscher, a professor of ancient Semitic languages at the University of Leiden in Holland, set out to determine in his new book. By examining a wide variety of languages both living and "dead," the author highlights a staggering array of erosive forces at work on languages throughout the world.

He attempts to chart for the reader how these forces work, and how that turned language (from a semi-mythical mother tongue dubbed "proto-Indo-European") into languages, which in turn change and change again, some embracing a wide range of cultural and geographic influences, others turning in on themselves and fading away.

As Deutscher writes, "the forces that created the elaborate features of language cannot be confined to prehistory, but must be thriving even now, busy creating new structures in the languages of today. Perhaps surprisingly, then, the best way of unlocking the past is not always to peer at faded runes on ancient stones, but also to examine the languages of the present day."

Similar elements

Deutscher embarks on the difficult task of tracing the roots of the "language tree," tracking the "Indo-Europeans" who provided the beginnings of modern tongues.

"This is a very tricky question, because ultimately no one knows where the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans was, and when they started spreading into Europe and Asia," Deutscher said. "Most researchers seem to think that language is somehow related to the emergence of 'modern human behavior' in Africa -- the first signs of symbolic art, for example ... which new evidence has been pushing further and further back, to at least 70,000 years ago," he said, adding that language itself probably dates back 50,000 years.

From there, Deutscher describes the possibility that language diffused among hunter-gatherer bands, diversifying and consolidating with the advent of agricultural communities.

But, he noted, this is a tricky subject that invites further study: "Since language doesn't leave any direct artifacts, there isn't so much direct evidence to go on."

And yet, elements of ancient languages separated by many centuries and thousands of miles are surprisingly similar. Deutscher highlights a surprising number of these elements, such as the use of "pointing at" words serving identical functions in modern French or ancient Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia circa 2500 B.C.

Moreover, he illustrates a central mechanism at work in our consciousness: analogy.

"Analogy is in fact at the very core of our intelligence," he stated. "Metaphor is a particular type of creative analogy, in which a term from one domain is used to describe more abstract concepts."

In turn, he said, this allowed early humans to enrich their ways of communicating with one another, a process which occurred (and continues to occur) with astonishing speed.

No sense of doom

Consider the difference between the English spoken in the United States at the turn of the century and that spoken now -- or, for that matter, consider the speech you were brought up with as a child, and compare it with the multitudinous sounds of your local Starbucks or mall. The English of Cole Porter has given way to that of DMX; Shakespeare's tongue has evolved to become David Mamet's.

And yet a modern English speaker would recognize all of them as English, even if the idioms and syntax have changed.

Despite the concerns of some people that their language is being corrupted, Deutscher says they have nothing to worry about. If anything, language gathers strength from its evolution, he says.

"I don't think there's any need to worry about language -- it is not decaying, and never has been," the author said. "Such dire prophesies about the doom of language have been around for thousands of years, but surely the fact that we have not sunk into monosyllabic grunts long ago is a good enough proof that it's not going to happen at any future stage either."

What is certain, he says, is that change is inevitable. And that's just fine.

"In fact, the book shows that language is in a rough state of equilibrium: some words disappear and some structures are eroded, but new ones are created at the same time, and these do the job just as well as the old ones," Deutscher said. "It is true, of course, that decay is one prominent force in the course of language evolution. But there are also forces of creation and generation operating at the same time."

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