Monday, February 09, 2009

Unfolding of Language

I'm reading an absolutely fascinating book called the Unfolding of Language, which attempts to provide some idea of why language changes and how it changes from early proto-languages to the vagaries of modern languages.

Why do we have plurals that end in s, but some words change completely (man/men)? Why all English verbs except "be" share first- and third-person forms(he ran/they ran, but he is/they are)? How did the "vowel shift" that changed language and spelling so dramatically occur? Why do related families of language sometimes have completely different structures? Why are some the same, even in languages that are not directly related?

The author is a Semitic language expert, so much of the book focuses on the 'template-based' word formation used there. The idea that the base meaning of a word can be expressed by three consonants, and they are plugged in to a template to get all the dozens of forms is interesting, and really starts to show how patterns in language really define it. We all see the patterns, of course -- if I give you a made-up noun (let's say, 'furf'), you instinctively know now to talk about two furfs. If my made-up noun is 'woopy', the same instinct produces 'woopies'. Why? Why isn't it woopys?

One of the primary arguments in the book is the general intent of speakers to 'make order out of chaos' and generate rules and predictable patterns in language -- but that it doesn't always work, because it is in distinct contradiction to the desire to vary words and sounds to create more concise meanings.

It gets a bit technical, but if you have any interest in linguistics at all, it's a great book. Very accessible, really, but I suggest reading the glossary in the back first if you aren't very familar with grammtical terms.

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