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Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour your World Hardcover – 3 Jun 2010
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""Jaw-droppingly wonderful... A marvellous and surprising book which left me breathless and dizzy with delight. The ironic, playful tone at the beginning gradates into something serious that is never pompous, intellectually and historically complex and yet always pellucidly laid out. Plus I learned the word plaidoyer which I shall do my utmost to use every day..."" (Stephen Fry)
"This fabulously interesting book describes an area of intellectual history replete with brilliant leaps of intuition and crazy dead ends. Guy Deutscher, who combines enthusiasm with scholarly pugnacity...is a vigorous and engaging guide to it...a remarkably rich, provocative and intelligent work of pop science." (Sam Leith Sunday Times)
"brilliant... As befits a book about language, this inspiring amalgam of cultural history and science is beautifully written." (Clive Cookson Financial Times)
"so robustly researched and wonderfully told that it is hard to put down...Deutscher...brings together more than a century's worth of captivating characters, incidents and experiments that illuminate the relationship between words and mind" (New Scientist)
"A delight to read" (Spectator)
A brilliant and provocative exploration of how the cultures we live in affect the languages we speak and how we think of the world around us.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
The author has some interesting points to make, although he does seem to contradict himself a bit. At first he appears to discount the idea that language affects thought, but he quickly comes round to the idea again.
It's terribly written because of the horrendous purple prose. Verbal diarrhoea! It needed a ruthless copy editor, but they seem to be a dying breed.
Overall I can't recommend it.
It is thoroughly researched, intelligent, controversial, witty and beautifully written.
It will be of special interest to those who question Chomsky's 'innate grammar'
and related theories. It provides detailed and cogent evidence for alternative
explanations of language and the mind.
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.
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.