This review refers to the 5th edition of the book, printed in 1975. I post no image / link since this book is long out of print, and Amazon has neither the cover image or copies for sale. This is a book about the history of language: about the process of change which goes on continually in any language which is actually in use. Its emphasis is on the evolution of the English language, but it also discusses more general topics such as "what is language", "the origin of language" and "language families". Some interesting things learned from the book:
  • There are quite a few theories about how language evolved in human beings. None of the theories is globally accepted as the most plausible, but the one I found most compelling is the transformation from pictorial presentations. The book includes some nice examples of pictorial writing of Native Americans and ancient Sumerians. Representing concepts by pictures must have evolved into a more general approach of letters representing sounds through a process of abstraction.
  • Looking at some ancient alphabets, it is possible to understand how they developed to be what they are by considering the means people had for writing. For example the early Sumerian alphabet was composed of straight lines and wedges because the Sumerians were mostly writing on clay, where straight lines and angles are easiest. On the other hand, the Egyptian alphabet is much rounder and "curvier", because Egyptians were writing on leather and papyrus.
  • A quote: "Perhaps the really crucial development, however, is 'phonetization', the association of a symbol with a particular sound (or group of sounds). First, a symbol for a concrete object is transferred to some more abstract object which is denoted by the same or a similar word. For example, the Sumerian word ti meant 'arrow', and so was represented by an arrow in the script; but there was also a Sumerian word ti which meant 'life', so the arrow symbol came to be used for this too. The arrow symbol was then felt to stand for the sound of the word ti, and was used for the syllable ti in longer words.
  • Grammar and vocabulary tend to change and drift when groups of people separate. But what changes most is pronunciation.
  • At the time of the earliest written records, the Semitic group of languages was a family with many members. The only surviving Semitic languages now are Hebrew, Arabic and Ethiopean.
  • While most of the European languages are not much different (they're all part of the Indo-European family of languages), Finnish and Hungarian are quite different - since they belong to the Ural-Altaic family. The Basque language is completely isolated - it is like no other known language !
  • English is a Germanic language at its core. Although there are a lot of Latin (especially French) words in English, by looking at the earliest forms of English and at the most basic words, it is obvious that English is a direct descendant in the Germanic line of languages, and all that it has from French is just borrowed words.
  • The Saxon invaders (from Northwestern Germany) brought their language into the English island between the 3rd and 6th century BC.
  • Lots of words were mixed into English from Scandinavian languages that arrived with the Viking conquests. By looking at which words have a Scandinavian origin it is possible to infer about the level of assimilation of the invaders. Some of the most basic, "homely" words in English came from the Vikings: sister, leg, neck, window, key, knife, skin, etc.
  • The Norman conquest in the 11th century brought French influence into English. Since it was the language of the conquerors, French quickly established itself as the language of government and "the rich" in England: duke, marquis, count, prince, baron, government, crown, justice, judge, prison, are all from French. It is very curious to note how the "common people" words were in English (calf, ox, swine, sheep), and the "high class" words were French (veal, beef, pork, mutton).
Although his writing is a bit academic, the author manages to stay above the verge of readability most of the time. There is a huge emphasis on pronunciation (probably because it is the part of language that goes through the most profound changes) which should be very interesting to native English speakers. All in all it's a nice, curious book, I wouldn't say it's very good, but for people interested in the topic it serves as a nice overview.


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