Guy Deutscher, in The Unfolding of Language, brilliantly explains, by means of linguistic detective work, how the complex grammar we use came into being. It is not a new book (published 2005) but a friend recently brought it to my attention. It is utterly revelatory. We can chart the evolution of language over recorded time – it changes very fast – and Deutscher shows how the same processes acted during the prehistory of language. The changes that have produce modern French, for example, from Latin can account for the primal grammar.
French is a good example because it demonstrates very well the principle of erosion of language that is, paradoxically, so important a factor in the evolution of language. Take water: “aqua” in Latin became “eau” in French. The consonants have disappeared. But if language is always eroding what stops it disappearing?
Deutscher likens the process to mountain building and erosion. When words are ground down they get added to. The French aujourd’hui is a good example. “hodie” in Latin became “hui” in French and was about to disappear when people started to say “au jour d’hui”: - on the day of today. It was unnecessary but as the word was disappearing some strengthening was called for. “au jour d’hui” then started to degrade and is now “aujourd’hui”. Further degradation is inevitable.
There are many other principles of course – you’ll have to read the book for those but I can promise that you’ll never feel the same about language again. Deutscher’s most startling claim is that it is probably idle to resist the degradations of language we see around us. It is always decaying but it is always perfectly good at its job. It seems to defeat entropy.