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Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Guy Deutscher

(Metropolitan-Henry Holt; US: Jul 2010)

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. However, 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 100 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 19th 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.


Deutscher 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 from another group with another language. 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 English speakers do with their 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—appears intriguing but less compelling than he intended. The speakers in both cases still orient themselves by their own internal placement. I may say a chair is to my left; another may say it is to the southwest, but we both are setting ourselves in relation to the chair. 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 a specific shade of 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 in our common observations. Red follows, as blood marks our encounters with each other and the natural world in which we compete and struggle.


The second portion of the book shifts to the impact of our mother tongue on how we think. Our native language may influence our reactions without determining them: this qualification segues into the Boas-Jakobson alternative to Sapir-Whorf’s model. Before this, Deutscher compresses material that I thought more compelling than much of the previous 100-plus pages on color.


This extends the essence of The Unfolding of Language, even if he barely refers to his earlier book. How languages begin—first as 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 differing 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. However, 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”.  However, 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?

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Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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