Guy Deutscher read Mathematics at Cambridge and went on to do a doctorate in Linguistics. Formerly a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Languages in the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he is an honorary Research Fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures in the University of Manchester. His books include The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention and Through the Language Glass.
For scientists, the two biggest questions are how the world works and how it came to be the way it is now. For me, language has always been the particular aspect of the world that cried out for explanation. Language is mankind’s greatest invention – except, of course, that it was never invented. And it is exactly this paradox that has been at the core of my fascination with language ever since I started thinking about it as a child. Language is an incredibly refined instrument. With the most meagre tools – a few dozen morsels of sound – it allows us to convey unlimitedly sophisticated thoughts, and I always wanted to know: how does it manage this? And how could such a clever system ever come into being if it wasn’t designed on an architect’s table?
Why this book?
No matter what aspect of language you are trying to look into, there is one fundamental question that you can hardly avoid: the question of innateness. How much of language is the bequest of nature and how much is influenced by culture? How much is hardwired and determined directly by the genes, and how much is cultural convention? In my previous book on the evolution of language (The Unfolding of Language), I tried very hard not to be sucked into this controversy too directly, although my approach clearly suggested that culture has much more to offer than what it is generally given credit for today. In Through the Language Glass, which is a kind of sequel, I decided to make the case for culture more explicit, and show how cultural conventions have the power to shape some of the most fundamental aspects of language, even those that common sense would have sworn must simply be natural and universal. This debate has as a natural corollary another great controversy, the question of the mother-tongue’s influence on the way we think and perceive the world. So this time, I decided to attack these two bitter controversies head on. What’s next?
I’m toying with different ideas. One question I find particularly interesting, but couldn’t incorporate into this book, is how politeness and other conventions of social interaction are both mirrored in language, and how they may be affected by language. Another area of interest goes beyond language, to explore ideas about heredity in the past and their relation to ideology. But these are early days for that. What’s exciting you at the moment?
The other great invention of mankind – music. I’m learning eighteenth century harmony together with my daughter.