In some cultures, there is a single word that denotes both blue and green. The people in these cultures can see the difference between the colors as well as anyone else, but they don't consider blue and green different colors, just different shades of the same color. In Russian, there is a word for dark blue and another word for sky blue. We who did not grow up speaking Russian do not confuse dark blue and light blue any more than Russians do, even if we call them both "blue."
How a language deals with colors is just one of the ways that linguist Guy Deutscher examines the interplay between language and thought. For many years, it was THE controversy in linguistic circles. But even if the phrases "Sapir-Whorf" and "Chomskian grammar" do not make you see red or any other color, you will find Deutscher's investigations into how language affects thought and vice versa, fascinating and enlightening.
He discusses why, in the Iliad, Homer described both the sea and oxen as being "wine-colored." He describes a society in which the people use points of the compass to describe locations rather than "left" and "right," and how that affects their sense of place.
Through the Language Glass had me seriously questioning what I thought I knew about language. Deutscher challenges conventional linguistic theories and seems to have a great time doing it. Through the Language Glass is the kind of book that you want to share with everyone and find out what they think about it, too. Is Deutscher crazy? Is he brilliant? Both, probably.
Also recommended -- When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge by K. David Harrison, and Harrison's documentary, The Linguists.
on October 3, 2010
The first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boarding school. At the end of that year I was completely fluent, but noticed an odd phenomenon, that I felt like a slightly different person when I spoke German than when speaking English. Since then I've also learned Spanish to a high degree of fluency, and the same observation holds. In both cases, the main difference that I perceive has to do with humor, and the way the language I'm speaking affects my sense of humor. So I've always been interested in the extent to which language affects thought. The notion that it does is what linguists refer to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Belief in Sapir-Whorf reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century, but since then the notion that language affects cognition has been discredited by almost all mainstream linguists.
In "Through the Language Glass" Guy Deutscher mounts a careful, very limited defence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He considers three major areas - the link between language and color perception, how different languages deal with spatial orientation, and the phenomenon of differences in noun genders across different languages. His examination of the link between language and color perception is extensive and thought-provoking - he traces the development of linguistic theory on color perception from British prime minister Gladstone's commentary on the relative paucity of color terms in Homer's work, through the Berlin-Kay model (stating essentially that languages all tend to split up the color spectrum in similar ways) through very recent experiments suggesting that the existence of a particular color distinction in a language (e.g. the existence of separate terms in Russian for light and dark blue) affects the brain's ability to perceive that distinction. Deutscher's account of the evolution of linguistic theory about color perception is a tour de force of scientific writing for a general audience - it is both crystal clear and a pleasure to read.
Two factors contributed to my eventual disappointment with this book. The first is that, even after Deutscher's careful, eloquent, persuasive analysis, one's final reaction has to be a regretful "So what?" In the end, it all seems to amount to little of practical importance.
The second disappointment pertained only to the experience of reading this book on an Amazon Kindle. Reference is made throughout to a "color insert" which evidently contained several color wheels as well as up to a dozen color illustrations. This feature was completely absent from the Kindle edition, which had a severe adverse effect on the overall experience of reading this book. Obviously, this point is relevant only if you are contemplating reading the Kindle version - DON'T!
If it hadn't been for the lack of availability of key illustrations on the Kindle, I would have given the book 4 stars, but I feel obliged to deduct one because of the Kindle-related deficiencies.
on December 17, 2010
Overall this is an excellent and informative discussion of how language influences thought, and I enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately for Kindle readers, Mr. Deutscher dedicates a significant portion of the analysis to the words and perceptions of color. There are numerous references to colors in charts and diagrams that are undoubtedly easily viewed in the printed version of the book, but are either recreated in black and white or totally absent from the Kindle version. (The Kindle for Mac view does not compensate.) Had I known this, I would have refrained from buying the e-reader edition, and would have purchased the hard cover book instead. I assign an average rating of three stars as a blended evaluation; the text itself I would rate five stars; the Kindle version gets one.
on March 30, 2012
An exploration of the cultural influence of language on individual perception of the world--nurture versus nature through the lens of the mother tongue.
An interesting premise made more credible given today's (and tomorrow's) brain technology. Provides many jumping off points for further exploration. The author has the courage to explore an area 'too hot' for many and does an adequate job of showing a safe way forward. The book is at its best when the author provided fascinating examples of vocabulary and syntax from a variety of languages.
The book becomes a tedious read as the author repeats, repeats, repeats himself to ensure enough distance from Whorfianism to avoid a backlash from the "baggage of intellectual history". A lot of build-up to each finding with not enough fanfare when he finally gets to the point. No real summary of findings to pull it all together.
Because you may miss it in the book, here is the main finding: in most areas, causation between language and perception is unfounded; however, a compelling case can be made in three very specific areas:
~ Spatial thinking - p. 193
~ Gender - p. 214
~ Color (as in rainbow, not race) - p. 231
With potential causation in two additional areas:
~ Plurality - p 236
~ Evidentiality - p. 236
How much does our culture determine, or liberate, our language's ability to express what we see? In his first book, "The Unfolding of Language," Deutscher mentioned how colors evolved in verbal expression from a primitive stage. Words entered language first for a binary black-white, later adding red, then yellow-green, and finally blue. But, he skimmed past this factoid as he rushed on to other theoretical matters. He returns to make this subject the heart of this sequel.
If language mirrors our mind, what is reflected? Is it human nature or cultural conventions? Color served, since the era of Darwin aroused clumsy curiosity whether linguistic responses might be innate, as a test case. Did color come about as the brain developed and became more civilized? Victorians wondered if languages developed by natural selection; anthropologists suggested language was filtered through culture. Scholars began to study diverse indigenous tongues that often differed dramatically from Indo-European languages.
Deutscher devotes the first hundred pages to explaining their discoveries of how colors in newly discovered languages were understood by perceptions and then vocabularies which revealed contrasts with the West. While these nineteenth-century models crudely linking Darwin to linguistics have been discarded, these inquiries opened Western ears to a global diversity of verbal and mental expression. Deutscher explains how our mother tongue "can affect how we think and how we perceive the world." He does not argue that language determines how we think. This distinction is crucial.
For, he rejects the "linguistic relativity" of the discredited Sapir-Whorf theory which claimed that language locks its speakers into a cognitive prison by which they must perceive, say, time differently. The Hopi may say "on the fifth day" rather than "five days," but mainstream scholars deny that this proves that the Hopi conceive time's accumulation of "unvarying repetition" differently than we do with our spatial models. This quickly turns theoretical, as the extended analyses of color vocabulary and then spatial orientation by geographic rather than egocentrical markers make the bulk of this text.
I felt that Deutscher's in-depth example of the Guugu Yimithirr aboriginal language--which in its isolated heyday indicated directions according to compass points rather than personal coordinates--appeared intriguing but less compelling than he intended. For, the speakers in both cases still orient themselves by their own internal placement. We may say a chair is to our left; they may say it is to the southwest, but we both are setting ourselves in relation to it. Deutscher appears to gloss this over.
He shows how languages may lack green-blue distinctions that in our native tongue appear as if natural to us. He suggests how taste can be an analogy: what if "wild strawberries" might be our only term for the whole range of new fruits a stranger brought us from a faraway land of berry extravagance? All we could do is compare each new varietal to more or less the one berry we had words to describe. By the scholar from Berry-Land we would be pitied as primitives, unable to comprehend the obvious range of fruit flavors.
Similarly, some cultures have not paid much attention to color spectrums. They did not feel the need to, as discernment may not have been necessary. This surmise began when William Gladstone, after studying Homer, surmised that artificial dye in classical Greece might have stimulated the color perceptions of ancient peoples. Before dyes were manufactured for shades of blue, the Greeks may not have been used to discern a range of hues in their depths (which appear instantly blue to us, or green due to our different cultural and linguistic habits) as other than a "wine-looking" or "wine-dark sea."
Whether Australian or Mediterranean, people tend to use the words they need for their world. If blue existed in sky or sea, it may not have been necessary to differentiate it. If it turned into an imported dye altering fashion or determining status, it then mattered to find a term for blue. (I invent this elaboration; "The cultural significance of blue," Deutscher admits as an aside, "is very limited." Such points deserved more analysis, considering that much of this book concerns color's linguistic applications.)
Yellow and green emerge later for many native cultures because agriculture and vegetation brought a greater awareness (ripe or unripe?) involved in sustenance. Black and white, day and night tend to come first for they are the most obvious contrasts. Red follows, as blood marks our encounters with each other and the natural world in which we compete and struggle.
The second section shifts to the impact of our mother tongue on how we think. It may influence our reactions without determining them: this qualification segues into the Boas-Jakobson alternative to Sapir-Whorf's model. Before this, Deutscher in one of his most compelling chapters compresses material that I thought more compelling than much of the previous hundred-plus pages on color.
This extends the essence of The Unfolding of Language (see my Oct 2007 review), even if he barely refers to his earlier book. How languages begin complex and then grow simpler--and then perhaps more complex again--appears to contradict what we might expect. Small societies rely on markers. Like the aborigines with their compass internalized in their language and their bodies in one place with the same solar and meteorological coordinates for thousands of years, people settled as relatives in one place speak by shorthand. As intimates, "she," "them," "here" and "over there" may be all that is needed to express what to a stranger would require precise yet wordier explanations of kinship, locale, or quirk.
When strangers arrive (perhaps traders of blue dye), they may speak a different accent or dialect. This forces locals to simplify words to communicate clearly. Comprehension between unfamiliar speakers of different languages may force a drastically minimal, almost childlike, manner of speech. More terms may be needed, such as "aquamarine" or "indigo," and these then enrich the local language. Concision, simplicity, and literacy often slow a language down in word forms and on paper. This is one reason why the spelling of English may preserve archaic sounds we no longer say, or why the gender distinctions of Romance languages persist in illogical forms, lovingly detailed in the best chapter, "Sex and Syntax."
The rest of the narrative lacks this intriguing scenario, however dimly sketched. But, Deutscher dutifully sums up current research in a manner that we non-linguists can appreciate. He shows, as in the gender situation, how German's feminine article for such a word as a bridge may influence somewhat the response, even in English, of traits attributed by a German speaker to "die Brücke" vs. a Spanish speaker's masculine "el puente". "German speakers tended to describe bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender; Spanish speakers as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering." While Deutscher remains cautious about interpreting such findings, he does hint that "manly or womanly associations of inanimate objects are strong enough in the minds of Spanish and German speakers to affect their ability to commit information to memory."
Both of this author's books share this professor's lively anecdotes, his engaging personality, and his ability to summarize linguistic debates efficiently. He lets the rest of us, outside the academy, listen in on arcane arguments. Yet, as part of academia, Deutscher may let his love for theoretical excursion weaken the pace of his presentations.
He wraps up his latest work, after more color discussion and more cognitive experiments, with a summary of how culture conventions of our society can be influenced by language. We do not live in what from Nietzsche has been memorably mistranslated as a "prison-house of language." But, we do tend to find patterns and pursue expressions that fit with our habitual sights, sounds, and markers.
Deutscher closes by begging forgiveness from future scholars, for we are on the verge of brain discoveries about language processing even as thousands of languages die out. These may offer, as Guugu Yimithirr, fantastic alternatives we thinkers used to English might never have conceived. Our scientific progress accelerates, but we also need linguistic alternatives to our monocultural, globalizing mindset. None of us can step aside and find a perfect language to judge all the others by. Maybe we've built, in a determination to make everyone speak our native tongue, our own prison-house after all?
on February 26, 2012
First of all, I have to start saying that I have a background in linguistics (PhD) which might bias my opinion on the book.
The author tries to explore the relationship between mother tongue and how the individual perceives the world in contrast to the idea of "universality" of language proposed by scholars inspired by the ideas of Noam Chomsky.
The topic is very interesting indeed, however in my opinion not well explored by the author: it is vague and not informative enough for linguists and it might be a bit dense (not to mention boring) for general readership. A couple of reasons for that are:
1) The author spends about 1/3 of the book talking about color perception in an absolute tedious debate that leads nowhere. He raises a couple of questions and no answers. Some languages make more fine-grained distinctions on color than others, that might be reflected on psychological experiments that deal with associations, but is that a different way of perceiving colors? I don't think so. I waited until the end of the book to find an answer to that and I didn't. On the contrary, in the end of the book, the author introduces new concepts on how the brain process colors to justify how difficult it is to answer the question he poses and spends more than 1/3 of the book talking about it.
2) As he talks about color, he presents a couple of images and diagrams, which make absolute no sense in the kindle Black and White E-Ink screen. The author is not guilty for that, but it is terrible to read that on Kindle.
3) After exploring the color issue (ad infinitum) he starts talking about gender in language. Pointing out that some languages do not have gender at all (e.g. Finno-Ugric branch), others have gender for masculine and feminine animal/human and all the rest neutral gender (e.g. English) and other languages have gender for everything (most Indo-European languages). And then the author presents a couple of examples and groups the Romance and Germanic Languages together, saying that the language system arbitrarily defines gender and the speakers tend to reflect that on associations. As Guy Deutscher is a lecturer in Linguistics with fluency in Hebrew, English and probably a couple of other languages as well, such an affirmation surprises me a lot.
The romance languages have a system of gender that is fairly consistent according to its morphology. Portuguese, Spanish and Italian for instance attribute gender according to the ending of the words. Words ending in A are feminine and words ending in O are masculine and this covers about 80% of the nouns. Even words that do not end in A or O present consistency. Words ending in -gem(PT), -aje (ES) and -aggio(IT) are ALWAYS feminine in Portuguese and masculine in the other two languages: (eg. a viagem (PT), el viaje (ES) and il viaggio (IT)). Now, please try to find some consistency in the way gender is organized in German! You might get it through etymology, but modern day spelling doesn't tell much to the speakers. In German, some endings like -chen (e.g. das Mädchen) are neutral, others like -ung (e.g. die Meinung) are feminine and so on. But these "rules" cover only about 20% of the lexicon of nouns. Is it the same thing? No, I don't think one can compare gender system in these two language branches albeit both can seen fairly irrational through the eyes of an English native speaker.
There are a couple of other things I would point out, but the review would be too big. I think the topic is interesting, the author certainly has enough knowledge and information to write about it, but the book could be a lot better...
on September 24, 2011
I am not a linguist but interested in linguistic topics. Thus I enjoyed the book, basically accepting the statements and conclusions Deutscher makes, until reaching page 201 (hardcopy) referring to gender allocation in German. Even as a non linguist the statements made are obviously very misleading. Deutscher states that "women are much more often denied belonging to the feminine gender" in German. His examples are Das Fräulein, Das Mädchen, Das Frauenzimmer. However as a linguist he will know that the diminutives -lein and -chen are always neutral. This is regardless of the noun used. Thus Büblein (small boy), Männchen (small man), Bübchen (small boy) are neutral as well. Also his example Das Frauenzimmer is misleading. Combined nouns in German always use the article of the last part of the noun. In this case Zimmer is neutral, thus Frauenzimmer obviously as well. Other examples would be das Männerhaus (house where the men live): as Haus is neutral Männerhaus is as well. Concluding, these, even for a non linguits, very obvious and basic mistakes make me doubt in all the other statements made in his book. Therefore, although an easy to read book and a book with interesting topics just 2 stars from mys side. Sorry!
on October 25, 2010
As a native Russian speaker, I always felt different from Americans. I've always wondered if the language i was brought up with altered my thinking in ways Americans weren't. I was hoping to get the answer in this book and I was really disappointed.
The book started out strong, showing how 3 different languages defined "culture" in different ways (French being most romantic and German being most brutal). But then once I started reading the book, it never really delved deeply into the subject of how language affects thought or behavior. The intro and reviews (it was recommended on New York Times) made it sound like a book about language affecting thought. IT wasn't.
I liked Deutchers' writing style. He was easy to read and funny. I liked his use of many examples, and then defining the examples to make it REALLY easy to understand. However, he NEVER really defined how A Language makes ONE society's thought be different from another's. He talked a little bit how a language FORCES one to pay attention and speak in a specific way. I really loved his example of how some cultures only have N S E W directions instead of front, back, left right. I understand what he said. I liked his analysis on "how can all language be equally complex? they cant." But i wish there were more examples like that.
More than half of the book (waaay too much ) was devoted to how different societies define colors. For example, how many cultures only have one word for green and blue. Maybe it's just that many studies haven't been done on language and culture. I don't know. Then he devoted a TINY section of the book to sex of objects, but not enough.
This book should have been titled "Culture and Color." I would have been less let down if he JUST focused on color (he did so for more than half the book) and talk about other stuff (sex of objects, directions) in another book. "Through the Language Glass" was interesting, and well researched, but not what the book intro claimed to be about.
on May 8, 2014
This is a well-written and informative book, a pleasant read. But, if you are interested in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, it is a great disappointment.
What this book does is to display a pale shadow of a diluted version of the grandiose Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – arrived at by ignoring all the central interest of the original and examining minutely the details the original thought to be source of only the blindingly obvious or the blatantly false – and show it to be true. What is left is just that some non-linguistic human actions have linguistic causes. Th star here is the experiment that shows that speakers of Russian, which has two words in the range of English “blue,” detect a difference in shade a miniscule fraction a a second faster when the two shades are on opposites of difference than when both are on the same side. And the connection with language, rather than some other factor, is ingeniously established.
Big whoop! This result may be better tested than Whorf's casual sidebar about empty solvent drums, but is certainly less significant. And yet it is the best the Whorfians have to offer and it is not worth a book. The book comes from the implicit announcement that that is all there is to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. But the claim that there is more is barely alluded to and certainly what more there might be is not described (or even mentioned). That these further possibilities turn out all to be false may be implied but is never stated. And absolutely no evidence of the failure is presented (as that would require saying what these possibilities are).
So, if you want a fuller Sapir-Whorf book, one that at least considers whether speakers of different languages actually view the world differently (almost within the purview of this book) or think about it by different processes (clearly beyond this book's vision) or even have a different naïve ontology (back to Sapir and Whorf at last), this is not it. The reply to this book, The Language Hoax, accepts this same pruned theory but comes to the conclusion – on the basis of the same evidence – that it is false. It does, however, offer a long rant to explain why there is such a thing as SWH, why certain questions (like the more expansive ones above) are no longer raised and even many questions in the present scope are not pursued. The answer seems to be political correctness: SWH was created to show that non-Western people were also fully functioning (all languages are of equal complex [not proven]) but then, when the theory turned to particularities and psychological inferences which might create or reinforce notions of inferiority those investigations were dropped, getting down finally to the innocuous remnants about colors and the like.
on October 30, 2012
The author clearly knows his field: the book is carefully researched and, in many aspects, well written. But unfortunately Guy Deutscher gets carried away with his own cleverness and his desire to turn almost every sentence into a marvel of originality and wit ends up becoming tiresome. Evidently, the field of linguistic relativity is rather arcane the author has considered it necessary to spice things up to make his book appealing to the general reader. However, he lays on the irony and hyperbole so thick that he often smothers the theoretical content that might actually be interesting.
The author clearly feels confident that most of his readers have no idea about the subject matter. He therefore allows himself to make sweeping generalisations and scathing criticism which cannot be questioned by most of his readers since they know next to nothing about linguistics. But not all readers are so ignorant and personally I found Deutscher's flippant attitude towards certain great humanists extremely irritating.
Figures such as George Orwell, George Steiner and Ludwig Wittgenstein are almost universally regarded as being among the greatest thinkers of the 20th century (unlike Deutscher, who barely reaches their bootstraps). Others, like Dan Everett, have produced ground breaking research far in excess of anything achieved by Deutscher. Yet he sees them as fair game for his smart-alecky irony. His criticism of comments made by Steiner almost 40 years ago in his great book After Babel (a "cult" book according to Deutscher - how could a book about comparative literature possibly be "cult"?), for instance, merely evidences that Deutscher has failed to grasp Steiner's purpose. When Steiner says the "future tense" is the distinguishing feature of man, he is evidently referring to the capacity to imagine and talk about the future, to plan ahead, not the English grammatical construction employing "will" or "shall". Deutscher simplifies Steiner's arguments for his own puerile purposes, somewhat pathetically. He also fails to understand that Orwell's "Newspeak" is a satirical invention within a satirical work -as if Orwell really thought that Newspeak was a practical linguistic project! Deutscher also allows himself to dismiss Wittgenstein's notions of language as set out in the "Tractatus" as if the great philosopher were an illiterate moron. Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century philosophy and linguistics knows that some of Wittgenstein's original propositions are now regarded as flawed - but this does not make him an ignoramus to be dismissed, along with Sapir and Whorf, with the most scathing contempt.
Finally, the author also dismisses 30 years of painstaking and ground-breaking research on the Amazonian Piraha language by the American linguist Daniel Everett as: "brouhaha"! Has Deutscher actually read any of Everett's work?
In the end, this book does not really tell us a great deal. The part about colour perception is interesting, but the section on linguistic relatively is rehashed (Stephen Pinker already saw fit to ridicule Whorf in "The Language Instinct" over 20 years ago) and superficial.
If Deutscher stops trying to be such a wit and actually concentrates on transmitting his knowledge, he may one day end up writing a worthwhile book.