The biggest mystery is not how the universe began and why; or how evolution started; our how modern humans evolved. It is how words like “in”, “of”, “up”, “from”, “perhaps “, “however”, “nevertheless”, “albeit”,and so on came into the world.
In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher has shown how metaphor is the key to all our language. We learned to name abstract concepts by appropriating physical things. Expressiveness in language demands that we carry on coining metaphors.
“At the cabinet meeting, ground-breaking plans were put forward to curb the power of the unions”.
This is now dead, stale language. But cabinet, ground-breaking, curb? Cabinet and ground-breaking obviously derive from the physical but what is a curb? Curb is part of a horse’s bridle but the word is almost only used now in the abstract sense.
Kitchen images have produced countless metaphors: troubles brew, anger boils over, discontent ferments. It goes further. All abstract words had to have a concrete thing or action behind them. So “decide” means to cut off; “sarcastic” means flesh-tearing (compare sarcophagus); “redundant “means overflowing – unda = wave.
So if all our abstract and functional words derive originally form physical parts of the body, the physical environment , food and its preparation, where do verbs come from? Verbs were originally nouns, a process still going on at some pace. We head the ball, hand it to them, leaf through a book, iron a shirt.
But prepositions? Prepositions come mostly from parts of the body or verbs: so the “front” in “in front of” was originally the forehead, as in Shakespeare’s “grim visage war has smoothed his wrinkled front”. In some languages “For” can be seen to be derived from “give”: giving something means that it is “for” someone. “With” has developed from the concept of “follow”. The process can be seen at work in a Groucho Marx joke:
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.
Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”
So the principle of exclusion was first expressed by the concept of physical exclusion – outside and inside were originally just parts of the body, as in topside of beef. The joke relies on the old literal meaning of outside colliding with the newer meaning of abstract exclusion.
The other great revelation of Deutscher’s book is that although languages always seem to be decaying, they never actually lose their expressiveness and accuracy. It is now known that the process of erosion is also the process of creation. In this language, resembles geology. Deutscher gives as an example the history of the French for today:
Hoc die Latin
Hui early French
Au jour d’huii
Aujourd’hui modern French
Au jour d’aujourd’ hui a developing idiom
As a word decays, it is rescued from oblivion by adding to it. Although logical, this example is tautological, but the need is felt for something stronger than “hui”, which sounds so close to “oui”. So, in effect, in the latest manifestation people are saying "the day that is the day that is today". Whether Au jour d’aujourd ‘hui will catch on we don’t know but you will never think of language the same way again after reading Deutscher.