Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher.  Metropolitan Books, 2010.  304 pp.  978-0-8050-8195-4.

... in which we learn about how perception is affected by linguistics.

Psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists have long stood together in denouncing a possible link between culture/language and a person's perception of the world.  Originally, scientists and politicians would use a culture's "less evolved" language to indicate that the people themselves were also "less evolved."  Deutscher, a linguist, defends his dissenting opinion without coming across as condescending or superior.  The majority of the book focuses on differences in color perception across cultures.  For example, Homer used the phrase "wine-dark sea" to describe the ocean in The Iliad, but it is difficult to believe that the ancient Greeks could not distinguish between wine red and sea blue.  Some cultures consider blue to be part of the "green" section of the color spectrum.  A plethora of other color-related examples are packed into the first half of this book, which demonstrates that the linguistic differences are markers of how cultures divide up their color groups, or how many names they give to different shades of a color, is not necessarily a reflection of their ability to see colors. 

Another section of the book focuses on linguistic differences in directions (north, south, left, right, front, back, etc).  For example, some languages (like English) make it easier to indicate locations relative to the speaker... ie, the book is to my right.  In other languages, it is more common to use common geocentric directions... ie, the book is south of me.  In many of the cultures that prefer to use the cardinal NSEW directions, the people are much more aware of which direction is North.

Overall, Guy Deutscher is a very good writer.  The book is engaging and full of good explanations and amusing witticisms.  It's obviously a very well researched book, with almost 50 pages of end notes and citations.  For the most part, the book doesn't drag, and it's easy for someone not familiar with the intricacies of linguistics to keep up. The book includes several pages of colored panels with diagrams illustrating many of the different concepts; these diagrams definitely add a great deal to the book.  (Note to e-book readers: Apparently the e-book version of this book does not include the color diagrams, which makes it extremely difficult to follow some of the discussions on color.)

My main complaint about the book is that the majority of it is devoted to the discussion of color, from various angles.  Four or five of the nine chapters in the book are devoted to color-related topics.  I suppose that's the easiest topic to discuss from many angles, and it's one of the easier topics to illustrate.  There was one chapter on the spectrum of language complexity ("primitive" vs "developed" or "modern" languages), but it would have been edifying to have more discussion of that, or more of an exploration of the anthropology or psychology side. 

4/5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds so interesting! I definitely want to read it at some point.

    I heard an anecdote about a culture (in Peru??) whose language structure necessitates citing your source for all statements of fact, and how that shapes the way they think in subtle ways. I thought it was from this book, was it?


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