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September 19, 2011

Interview with Guy Deutscher

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Written by: Purnima
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(Guy Deutscher is a popular linguist, now working at the University of Manchester. He has written several books and articles on language evolution for both linguists and general public. “Through the language glass” and “The unfolding of language” are two of his published books. Some of his articles can be accessed from his homepage here. Here is a small email interview we did with him, where he speaks not only about language, its evolution, handling a possible extinction etc., but also about Telugu, reasons for its present situation and suggests on how to improve the scenario. We thank Guy Deutscher for his co-operation and insightful comments. – pustakam.net )

Do you think that it’s possible to foresee a language’s extinction, take steps to prevent or delay it and save the language from the clutches of death?

Of course it is possible – after all, languages (as opposed to human beings) don’t HAVE to die. If their speakers have enough motivation to continue speaking the language, rather than switching completely to one of the dominant languages, then it won’t die. So it’s really a question of making people see the importance and value of their language. The problem, of course, is that it often it is extremely difficult to make people see that. Or – which is a particular tragedy – they do see eventually it, but only when it’s too late: when the last native speaker has died, suddenly the generation of the grandchildren remembers all the rich culture and traditions that were embodied in the language, and want to relearn it – but then it’s not so easy any more. In other words, the challenge is to make people see the value of the language not just in retrospect, but when it’s still widely spoken.

Currently, my language ‘Telugu’ is going through a phase where some rule out of the possibility of it surviving for any more than a century, few ardent fans leaving no stone unturned to keep it going, and majority by and large are indifferent to the progress of the language. Can you advice or suggest what such a community can do to preserve it’s language?

Yes, this is exactly as I mentioned before. The greatest enemy is indifference. Maybe one thing that could help is to try to paint to people in vivid terms what it would be like if the last native speaker of Telugu were to die. Write a short story: pretend that the year is 2010, and the last native speaker has just died, and how suddenly younger people are trying to discover all the cultural richness that was there, and is NOW TAKEN FOR GRANTED – the idioms, the folk-tales, the special ways of saying things, the jokes, everything – and there’s no one any longer to find out from. And how these younger people are extremely angry with their parents generation for having let the language go in this way. That may shake people from their indifference.

Any attempts towards one common universal language has never worked out. Your comments?

Well, there have in different periods in history been languages used as lingua franca. But they were usually regional rather than really universal.

You quoted examples from many languages in your books to explain some nuances. Do you know all or most of them? How well should one master the languages to study them?

Unfortunately, I don’t know all the languages I quoted. When you do linguistics, since you can’t ‘properly’ learn dozens or hundreds of languages, you have to learn about the structure and properties of languages without being able to speak them. So you end up knowing quite a lot about various languages and how they work, but not enough to be able to speak them. Of course, you always need to know a few languages very well – the ones you specialize in. But it’s not possible to have that type of knowledge across the board.

What are your favourite languages? How do you get to learn and practise extinct languages?

My favourite language happens to be an extinct one- Sumerian (from ancient Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq), the first language that was ever written, starting at about 3000BC. Because they wrote on clay tablet, in the desert climate of Iraq, these are very durable, and so an enormous amount of texts have survived, which allowed researchers over the last 150 years to decipher the language.

Your writings are fully comprehensible and delightful to read even for people without a trained linguistic background. How did you achieve this simplicity in writing? Were there any writers who inspired you in this aspect? Any suggestions to budding non-fiction writers on the same?

Oh well, I can tell you that it’s extremely hard work to write in an easy way… So I achieved it mostly by working very hard at it. The ideal I tried to achieve was to be accessible but without dumbing down, and in this writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond were a great inspiration.

To understand more on the topic of language evolution and acquisition, where would you suggest for beginners with non-linguistic background to start with?

This is a difficult one – I wrote my books partly because I thought that there is so little that is accessible. But one good source I can suggest to anyone who wants to know more or considers studying linguistics is the books by Jean Aitchison. They are entry-level textbooks on historical linguistics, acquisition, evolution, etc. And they are very well written.

I find so little reference to Indian languages (The languages spoken in India, the country, I mean…not the Native American Indian Languages) in your articles. I did not find much information in the bibliography either (in “Through the language glass”). Is there very little work done in studying them?

I’m sorry about that….   There is certainly work done on the languages of India, but I think you are right that not as much as on some other languages. The reason why some languages (or language areas) have received more attention has nothing to do with the inherent interest or value of the languages, but is more to do with historical accidents. So, for example, throughout the 20th century, the forefront of linguistic research has been in North America, and it is natural that American linguists who wanted to do research on ‘exotic’ languages mostly chose those that were close to home, i.e. the native American languages. The result is that there is a huge body of high quality research on these languages, entirely out of proportion to the number of speakers. Similar such ‘historical accidents’ account for the fact that some language areas are much more thoroughly researched than others.

Can you point to any specific references about studies in Indian languages? I tried but could not find much.

If it’s the Dravidian languages you’re after, then a good place to start is: “The Dravidian languages” by B. KrishnamurtiWhere there will be lots of more specific references.
Also, were there any efforts to study the evolution of related languages, together. For example: Language A and Language B are spoken by neighbouring states and are also closely related. Will studying the evolution of Language A & language B together help in anyway than studying them in isolation?
Most certainly. This is what traditional historical linguistics is about: establishing relationships and working out how languages diverged from one another, or how they developed in parallel, etc. And the more you know about the family and area context, the more development in the individual languages are easier to comprehend. There should be references to all these in the book I mentioned above.

Some Useful links:

1) Wikipedia page
2) An Interview from American Scientist.
3) A review of “Through the language glass“, published here in pustakam.net
4) A review of “The unfolding of language“, published here in pustakam.net

About the Author(s)


Software engineer by profession, Hyderabadi at heart, laidback by choice, an introvert by default, schizophrenic at will etc. etc... so much so about her, to give you enough to guess what she might come up about the worlds of words she wanders.. keep guessing..


  1. Swathy

    Good one … informative.

  2. Suresh Kolichala

    Wow! An interesting interview with a popular linguist!

    Guy Deutscher apparently doesn’t know much about the enormous amount of research done on Indian languages in the past 250 years. In fact, the birth of historical linguistics was intimately tied to the discovery of how closely some of the Indian languages were related to the European languages. The famous speech delivered in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on February 2, 1786 by Sir William Jones, father of historical linguistics, is generally regarded as the beginning of the new field of historical linguistics. The following is the oft quoted excerpt from that speech:

    “The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek , more copious than the Latin , and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists …”

    Of course, while Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages of India attracted a lot of attention and devotion, other linguistic families of the Indian subcontinent received very little attention. We are fortunate that towering giants like Emeneau, Burrow and Krishnamurti devoted their lives to the exploration of Dravidian languages. Unfortunately, Munda, Tibeto-Burmese and other non-literary languages didn’t have any Emeneaus and Krishnamurtis, and some of these languages are disappearing fast.

    Furthermore, it must be noted that much of the quality research on Indian languages was done by scholars of non-Indian origin. A sad reminder on how India has been neglecting studies in Humanities!

  3. బాగుందండి. Thank you for posting it.

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