Through the Language Glass Guy Deutscher 2010
The author has an elegant classical writing style and I bought the book at his Wandsworth Arts Festival presentation last autumn.
Deutscher gives a fascinating introductory tour d'horizon of linguistics and its history. He shows how views have veered from stressing the commonality of languages to Whorf's ideas on different languages defining radically different perceptions of reality in different tribes and peoples.
But the author's style is more that of a populariser rather than a scientist, and the book alludes to studies and evidence rather than originating anything new. In my view, his conclusions are rather tame and (as he would no doubt admit) need further evidential backing.
Deutscher's bold hypothesis is that in important ways language can affect not just how we describe the world, but how we actually perceive it (although he rejects Whorf's extreme views.) If this were the case in terms of eg major intellectual and cognitive concepts then it would be revolutionary. However his conclusions in three areas seem rather more marginal and perhaps disappointing given the build-up:-
- Colour perception Gladstone (yes the 19th c. P.M.) made a study in which he claimed the classical Greeks described the sea or sky as black or wine coloured. Deutscher claims modern studies show differences in colour perception in different nationalities, but the quoted examples merely show subtle differences in analysing shades of green, blue and grey ie. close neighbours on the colour spectrum . But this is hardly the same as someone describing a red apple as green and it could be pointed out that there are sometimes arguments within a language as to how to describe a colour in say, a specific picture.
- Directions While most Western developed cultures primarily use personal orientation (left, right etc.), some tribes use absolute geographical concepts (North, South,..). While Deutscher proposes that their language implants these ideas in these peoples, might this not just be an environmental result of say a hunting culture where absolute directions may be of overriding survival importance.
- Gender Deutscher points out there are major gender differences in languages, inflections and word endings and that in English inanimate objects tend to be described by the impersonal pronoun `it' with certain notable exceptions eg. a ship is `she'. Other languages differ wildly. No doubt there is a strong sentimental attachment to this in one's native language (groups are quoted who get upset if ships are no longer seen as feminine) but this does in a sense seem trivial. For anyone learning another language soon adapts to different gender descriptions and presumably adopts this mindset while speaking the language. How deep seated in the psyche are these ideas?
While Deutscher's book is descriptively lively, I don't see that it is likely to ruffle many feathers among what might be called the Chomsky based consensus. I learnt at university of Chomsky's radical ideas on the common aspects of human languages, and the remarkable fact that any healthy infant if displaced can adopt any language as his native tongue. Indeed Deutscher acknowledges that all human concepts are potentially graspable by all peoples. The tribal boy may count "1,2,3 many", but given education he will soon be grasping calculus. In rejecting Whorf's extreme ideas Deutscher appears to be somewhere in the middle of the scale.
It would be interesting to learn more of Deutscher's ideas in a possible future book on the impact of the global economy on language and perceptions, with so much of the world's population speaking (even if not natively) one of a few languages - in particular English or Chinese. How does this affect their perceptions of the world?
Have learnt of a must read just published book on English and its history The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
The author Henry Hitchings apparently disapproves of those who over emphasise the prescriptive elements of language rules and grammar and describes the evolving nature of language.