Guy Deutscher: Through the Language Glass

25.02.2011

After reading this article in the New York Times magazine and some positive reviews I looked forward to reading "Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages," a new book by Guy Deutscher from which the article was adapted.

Unfortunately the book is a bit of a let-down. It is basically an elaborate version of the excerpt published in the New York Times providing some historical context, footnotes, references and more examples. I also found the book's style a bit awkward. Deutscher begins every topic with a lengthy historical survey of views that are currently believed to be misguided and so you have to remind yourself not to remember what you're reading because it is wrong or refrain from getting annoyed because you already know that it is wrong. I kept wishing Deutscher would just get on with it and tell what the current state of knowledge is.

The book is divided in two parts: The Language Mirror and The Language Lens. The first part argues that language reflects culture, the second part that language affects thought.

Much of the first part and about one third of the book as a whole is devoted to colour terms, once a hotly debated topic in linguistics. All languages have words that name colours, but they differ in the colours that are named. Some languages lack a word for blue and what is referred to as blue in one language may differ from what is referred to as blue in another language. However, colour terms are not arbitrary and they are acquired in a predictable order: 1. black and white; 2. red; 3. yellow or green; 4. blue. Deutscher argues that this reflects a society's exposure to a particular range of colours and their need to distinguish between them. There are very few blue objects in nature, apart from the sky, and there is no pressing need to name the colour of the sky. While this is interesting and explains why Homer refers to the sea as "wine-looking" and describes the sheep in the cave of the Cyclops as having thick violet wool (and no, these are not mistranslations) as evidence for the claim that language reflects culture I find it rather weak.

Tucked away in a few pages towards the end of part 1 Deutscher builds a far more compelling case for how language reflects culture. There is a relationship between language complexity and the complexity of a society: "languages of large societies are more likely to have simpler word strucuture, whereas languages of smaller societies are more likely to have many semantic distinctions coded within the word" (p. 113). The languages of more complex societies also allow for more complex sentence structures, as reflected in the use of subordinate clauses. I wish Deutscher had devoted more space to these topics.

The main thesis of the second part is that language influences the mind not because of what it allows one to think, but because of what it obliges one to think about. Any thought can be expressed in any language, but some languages force the speaker to specify whether a person is male or female. What is more, there are languages with a wide range of genders. Languages also differ in the way the location of objects are specified. Some languages use an egocentric frame of reference, left, right, front, back, while others use a geographic north, south, east, west system.

Perhaps I should add that I am already familiar with much of the material covered in the book. The chapter on space in language and cognition builds heavily on the work of Stephen Levinson, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, whose research has often been featured in Dutch media. I remember being fascinated when I first learnt that there are languages which use a different spatial frame of reference. Of course, it may well be that this is new to you, as it once was to me. In that case I do recommend "Through the Language Glass", despite my personal reservations, as it does a good job at introducing some of these lesser known facts about language in an accessible style with many examples and anecdotes.

Links

Interview with Guy Deutscher in the Paris Review Daily.

Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D.B.M., and Levinson, S.C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8 (3), 108-114.

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Tags: Books | Science