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This book takes a couple of old ideas about language that seem ludicrous and discredited, and shows that there is something in them. If you have read Deutscher's "Unfolding of Language", the first thing to know about this book is that it's much easier to understand - I read it all in one sitting, which I can't imagine doing with the earlier book because of the fairly hard going when discussing technicalities of grammar.

One issue seems rather dry and academic, but turns out to be anything but - names for colours and their development over time, starting with a book about Homer, by Gladstone (yes, the Victorian PM), which drew conclusions about colour perception by the Ancient Greeks from descriptions like "wine-dark sea". Similar discredited notions are ideas like speakers of languages with complex sets of tenses having a more highly-developed notion of time than those who use fewer tenses or none at all. Deutscher shows how the desire to get rid of silly nonsense has resulted in some equally silly nonsense, like the tenet that all languages are "equally complex" whether they belong to an 'advanced' Western civilisation or a 'primitive' aboriginal group. Far more acceptable of course than the notion that the 'primitive' language reflects racial inferiority, but still nonsense, because we have no way of measuring how complex a language is - we may as well say that all languages are equally green.

The other dodgy old notion is that your mother tongue affects the way you think. Deutscher shows that in a few ways, it actually does. Along the way you get entertaining coverage of things like gender conundrums, including the fact that Mark Twain's joke about female turnips applied to Old English just as much as modern German, and that like "she" for ships, this turnip gender lasted way past the death of Old English as a language - Deustscher quotes an example from a medicinal manual published in 1561.

It's all presented far more clearly than my hasty summary of the ideas can show you, and there's much incidental interest along the way, illustrating the fine line between thought-provoking but carefully stated suggestions and false statements (possibly based on a desire to 'prove' those suggestions) that lead generations of academics down the wrong path. Deutscher is good at seeing this process and as fair to the various participants as he can be. He's also good at getting you to see that aspects of foreign languages that seem absurd to English-speakers may actually indicate what's strange about English. His mother tongue is Hebrew, which has the same "irrational gender system" as most European languages, and he tells us that "If I knew more about (feminine) ornothology, I could tell by looking at each bird what biological sex she was. I would point at her and explain to the less initiated: 'You can tell she is a male because of that red spot on her chest and also because she is larger than the females.' And I would not feel there was anything remotely strange about that."

The biggest recommendations: the fact that I read the whole book again within a week, and Deutscher taking over from Steven Pinker as my favourite author of language-related books.
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In some cultures, there is a single word that denotes both blue and green. The people in these cultures can see the difference between the colors as well as anyone else, but they don't consider blue and green different colors, just different shades of the same color. In Russian, there is a word for dark blue and another word for sky blue. We who did not grow up speaking Russian do not confuse dark blue and light blue any more than Russians do, even if we call them both "blue."

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.
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on 3 February 2011
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.

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on 3 April 2011
This isn't the usual sort of book that I review - Language & Linguistics is a bit more upmarket than the usual romance or vampire novels that I tend to read. However, I was browsing in a bookshop in Berlin and among the `Englische Bücher' I saw this book featured. It had an endorsement on the front by Stephen Fry so I thought I'd give it a go.

I'm really glad I did as reading this book opened up a whole new way of looking at things. Guy Deutscher looks in detail at how the language we speak may colour our view of the world - focusing on colour and how we name/see it (from the Greek Iliad and the wine-dark sea to how Russians react to different shades of blue) and how position of objects can be described in different ways depending on how your culture marks out place. There was so much packed into this book that I found myself hooked, reading it until late in the night and going back to read some sections again.

The language examples are from a vast array of languages - modern European ones with which we may be familiar to some of the much less well-known tongues from the antipodes and further. Although the author is an academic this book was fun, engaging, warm and in no way dry and dusty.

I also think it worth mentioning that the quality of the writing was absolutely excellent. Deutscher's English is lovely, with a great turn of phrase. All the more amazing when you discover that his mother tongue is Hebrew and so English is a second language to him. I was really impressed by the way that he could express himself in English whilst explaining how something may seem to him as someone who sees the world through a Hebrew mind.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone with the faintest of interest in language, linguistics, colours and more.
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on 1 December 2011
Certainly an interesting & accessible little book. However, as other reviewers have noted, I felt that several interesting topics (Colour nomenclature especially) were padded out with far too many historical anecdotes. Some promises in a sense were also not met. Does speaking German really imbue speakers with a sense of logic & those of French with a sense of romantic idealism. I'm also not sure if the basic "mould vs cloak" debate with regard to Saphir-Whorfism was really explored. It would also have been fascinating to have had some debate around the famous Wittgenstein quote that "The limits of language are the limits of my world" and thus where that leaves the whole range of ineffable sensory experiences that we all have. Then again no mention around the ideas expounded by Pinker & Fodor regarding "Mentalese" or the "language of thought". I personally certainly don't feel that I "think" in English, my mother tongue.

Maybe Guy Deutscher's NEXT book could address some of these issues??
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on 31 July 2012
Oh dear. I really enjoy books on language and was looking forward to reading this, but I find its style hard to tolerate. It is a strange mixture of cliche and overblown, flowery rhetoric. It is certainly not to my taste. The book also begins with invective against views he disagrees with and only later do you get reasons for this.

Everyone is entitled to the odd grandiloquent phrase, but the author doesn't seem to know when to stop. There is an awful lot like the following: "Before long a flame will flare up and illuminate the intellectual firmament, leaving no corner of human reason untouched." "But when all is said and sung, the elegant conceit of the critics' animadversions does not bear up to Gladstone's literal mindedness..." "Today, under the bright neon lights of the genetics lab, when the human genome has been mapped, when scientists can twiddle their pincers to clone sheep and engineer soybeans, and when children learn about DNA in primary school, it is difficult to imagine the complete darkness in which even the greatest minds were groping just over a century ago in all that concerned life's recipe.". "Geiger, who had died in 1870, was not allowed to bask in posthumous glory, however." (Errm?)

On other thinkers about language we get: "in their pronouncements on language, culture and thought, it seems that big thinkers in their grand oeuvres have not always risen above little thinkers over their hors d'oeuvre."

And this patronising tone is applied to almost everyone: "is the Chambers definition not the quintessence of Englishness? Rather amateurish in its non-committal list of synonyms, politely avoiding any awkward definitions?". "Like flies to the honeypot or philosophers to the unknowable, the most inspired charlatans, the most virtuoso con artists, not to mention hordes of run-of-the-mill crackpots, have been drawn to expostulate on the influence of the mother tongue on its speakers' thoughts.". Certain well known linguists and anthropologists have their views dismissed with the sentence "How could such piffle be spouted by sober scientists?"

I prefer to be given the evidence and to make up my own mind - and not to be told "when Gladstone finishes drawing his circle of evidence, any reader with at least half an open mind would have to accept that....". Or to have people's views blackened before they have been explained with phrases like: "the most notorious of con men, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who seduced a whole generation into believing, without a shred of evidence that....". May be, but the book doesn't tell me what he said until several chapters later.

All this is a pity, as there are lots of interesting things in the book - and I agree with much of what it says, particularly the attack on relativism. It is such a shame that the style is painful and polemical. I would recommend that readers ignore the first third of the book - the florid language and the author's temper calm down a little as the book goes on.
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on 19 October 2010
Well, what a extremely pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! I work as a teacher in advertising so language is quite logically one of my interests, and in a way very much the basis of everything I discuss with my students. Brilliant advertising strategies and original creative concepts will still get you nowhere if the language doesn't appeal to the target group. But alas, many books on language (regardless whether they focus on advertising or not) are, how shall I put this?, not very engaging. Not so with 'Through the language glass'!

In fact, this book had me enthralled from the very start and is as gripping reading as some of the very best detective novels. It's insightful, Deutscher argues his case (that the language you grow up with can and does indeed colour - in more than a literal sense of the word - the way your mind works) very convincingly and eloquently, and on top of that it's absolute fun to read. If only all books on communication and language were this good!

Absolutely must-read, and not just for language teachers! After all, whatever field you're active in, language is what we all use to reason with and express ideas in so if - as Deutscher convinced me is effectively the case - language can colour the way your mind works this surely is of interest to all of us.
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on 9 December 2010
Linguists nowadays assert the language we speak doesn't affect the way we think. But can it have still have subtle effects on our perception? Guy Deutscher presents a convincing and entertaining argument that it does, starting with the curious case of colour. As Gladstone (yes, that one) observed way back in 1858, in Homer's poetry the colours just seem 'wrong'. The ancient Greek sea was 'wine coloured', hair 'violet', and a daytime sky 'black'. It seems that although the ancient poets saw colours exactly as we do, they described them very differently, blurring yellow and green and not recognising blue as a separate colour at all. Colour perception itself seems to be to some extent culturally evolved. As with the equally excellent The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention Dutscher can't maintain the opening momentum as he wanders off to more obscure notions of geographical coordinates and noun gender but I still consumed the book in a gulp driven on by Deutscher's pacey page-turning style and sly punning.
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on 4 September 2013
Can the language we speak influence the way we see the world? In other words, can reality change according to the language we use to perceive and describe it? As an Italian speaker talking both English and Spanish, I've always been fascinated by such a topic, and often asked myself to what extent language may determine the way we are and think. Guy Deutscher focused on this question, going back to the first brave attempts to pose it, till the very latest and newest experiments to answer it. His book is a very fascinating journey, able to arouse the interest in every kind of reader, but at the same time sticking to science and avoiding generalization and trivialization. At the end of it, you'll learn a lot about the way people make different use of colours, space expressions, and noun genders. You'll discover that culture may be very powerful indeed, and that things that look so natural to us are not that natural after all.
Absolutely recommended!
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on 20 May 2014
In terms of content, this is a fascinating, mind-blowing introduction to the ways in which language may affect our views of the world. the question of whether our mother tongue influences our thinking and perceptions is considered through questions of colour vocabulary, means of giving directions and grammatical gender. By far the largest portion of the book considers colour, and this is the most intriguing - I had certainly never questioned that "blue" is a concept that every language would have a word for, but it seems I was wrong. Each of the concepts is illustrated by examples and thought experiments, including a description of various scientific experiments which have attempted to prove links between language and other areas of brain function.

Unfortunately, although the topic, examples etc are intriguing, the style is annoying. The author seems to subscribe to the view that one sentence is never enough - he can use pages to cover what could be expressed just as well in one paragraph. There is also a sneering tone which creeps in at many points, which is frankly annoying.

The book could undoubtedly be both shorter and less annoying if written in a different style. However, I would recommend reading it for the insights it gives into the world, and the preconceptions about what is "normal" that it challenges.
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