Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World Hardcover – Jul 5 2010
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"Jaw-droppingly wonderful... A marvellous and surprising book which left me breathless and dizzy with delight. The ironic, playful tone at the beginning gradates into something serious that is never pompous, intellectually and historically complex and yet always pellucidly laid out. Plus I learned the word plaidoyer which I shall do my utmost to use every day..." Stephen Fry "This fabulously interesting book describes an area of intellectual history replete with brilliant leaps of intuition and crazy dead ends. Guy Deutscher, who combines enthusiasm with scholarly pugnacity...is a vigorous and engaging guide to it...a remarkably rich, provocative and intelligent work of pop science." -- Sam Leith Sunday Times "brilliant... As befits a book about language, this inspiring amalgam of cultural history and science is beautifully written." -- Clive Cookson Financial Times "so robustly researched and wonderfully told that it is hard to put down...Deutscher...brings together more than a century's worth of captivating characters, incidents and experiments that illuminate the relationship between words and mind" New Scientist "A delight to read" Spectator
About the Author
Guy Deutscher is the author of The Unfolding of Language: The Evolution of Mankind's Greatest Invention. 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. Through the Language Glass is his third book. He lives in Oxford with his wife and two daughters.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Books about language, even the best of them, often get bogged down with explorations of grammar and structure concepts. In TtLG, the topic of color is the danger that seems to be lurking around corners, ready to bore the reader with expanse and detail. Not so, however. Deutscher provides a historical background to the revealing topic of color and language, revealing that contemporary discourse on the subject goes back nearly 200 years.
There are several insights related to color and language in the book, the most profound one for me is that languages differ by what they must convey, not by what they can convey. This is a great, simplistic way of understanding language, and all media. This of how it applied today in understanding the differences in the mediums that we choose to communicate: mediums are distinguished by the information that we are obliged to communicate when used.
Deutscher provides a great running commentary of the debate on whether language shapes thinking – he stresses that contrary to popular though , it can and does, while at the same time welcoming both sides of the issue. I love how he presents his thoughts, and feel that this approach (freedom within constraints) to understanding a difficult issue can be effectively applied to many contexts that are bogged down by dichotomic thinking, and writing.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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
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?