Book #75: Through the Language Glass (2010)

IMG_2558.JPGFull title: Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
Author: Guy Deutscher
Language: English with excerpts in various other languages
Length: 249 pages
Finished reading on: 15 October 2014

This is a pop science book about linguistics, a prospect that broadly speaking doesn’t fill me with a lot of hope, since the quality can be so variable. Thankfully this one wasn’t so bad.

In it, Guy Deutscher attempts to debunk the notion that language necessarily cannot influence language in any way. As he writes, due to the negative influence of some unforgivably bad science and faulty conclusions known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which for the uninitiated, states that language determines thought absolutely), most linguists reject out of hand the notion that language has any influence at all on the way we think. Or do they? Granted, I haven’t talked to that many people in the field overall, but my understanding is that a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in which language influences but doesn’t determine thought, is commonly accepted among linguists.

Deutscher is compelling in the way he makes his arguments, overall. He mainly looks at colour words and the history of research into the way these vary between languages, starting with people in the 18th and 19th centuries noticing that the ancient Greeks didn’t use many colour words and then wondering why – is it because they had a diminished colour sense, or because their culture didn’t put as much emphasis on colour. Later he returns to the discussion with an experiment on Russian speakers, who distinguish dark and light blue in their language, to see if it affects their perception of the colour.

Other areas he looks at include direction words – there are communities that use cardinal directions instead of words like left and right to give directions – and languages with grammatical gender.

There are two main problems with the book in my opinion, and they’re basically minor gripes. The first was that it’s often very repetitive, labouring over the point it’s trying to make with endless examples to try and prove it to a reader he apparently assumes to be completely incredulous.

The second is that Deutscher also seems to forget that people don’t always know the same things as him. I saw it most when there was a quote, or a word, in Hebrew (Deutscher’s native language) that was written in the original script without transcription, yet other language excerpts are sensibly romanized. It only affected one or two sentences out of a while book, but it made me think he hadn’t put proper consideration into who his readers might be.

He is also a bit bloody-minded in his attack on what he sees as the linguistic establishment. That said, one very interesting point came out of that that I’d never really considered before: many introductory and even high-level linguistics textbooks repeat with almost religious fervour the mantra that all languages are equally complex. It turns out this claim is difficult to source, anecdotally untrue, and scientifically unfalsifiable. What is the definition of complexity here, for instance? It turns out it may come from one guy in the 70s hypothesizing that if one area of a language is more complex, another area would be simpler to compensate, and yet by that measure, most areas of German outrank English, particularly the syntax, which is more rigid and arcane, but also the morphology, which is chock full of irregularities. Anyway, this combined with the notion that any language can produce an equivalent sentence for any idea or meaning, which barring vocabulary gaps, is probably true, seemed to give rise to the notion that all languages are equally complex.

Overall I would recommend it, I think. It’s not a perfect book, but I think its main strength is its style: Deutscher is successful in not using too dry or academic a structure and as a primer on these issues it is very informative and useful.


2 Responses to Book #75: Through the Language Glass (2010)

  1. James says:

    I never heard about this book till now; I might well get around to it having read this review. I do wonder who does support the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” though?

    • Finlay says:

      Strictly speaking, no-one, because the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that thought is only possible with language, and that language strictly shapes thought. Nobody believes that, but most give credence to the idea of one having an influence on the other, as in this book.

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