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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 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 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 11 December 2016
The irony here is that it's a book about language - but terribly written.

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.
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on 18 January 2013
The author knows his field: the book is carefully researched and, in many aspects, well written. But unfortunately Guy Deutscher gets carried away with his own cleverness; his desire to turn almost every sentence into a marvel of originality and wit ends up becoming tiresome. Evidently, the field of linguistic relativity is rather arcane the author wishes to spice things up to make his book appealing to the general reader. However, he lays on the irony and hyperbole so thick that he often smothers the theoretical content that might actually be interesting.
The author clearly feels confident that most of his readers have no idea about the subject matter. He therefore allows himself to make sweeping generalisations and scathing criticisms which cannot be questioned by most of his readers since their knowledge of linguistics is limited. But not all readers are so ignorant and personally I found Deutscher's flippant attitude towards certain great humanists extremely irritating.
Figures such as George Orwell, George Steiner and Ludwig Wittgenstein are almost universally regarded as being among the greatest thinkers of the 20th century (unlike Deutscher, who barely reaches their bootstraps). Others, like Dan Everett, have produced ground breaking research far in excess of anything achieved by Deutscher. Yet he sees them as fair game for his smart-alecky irony. His criticism of comments made by Steiner almost 40 years ago in his great book After Babel (a "cult" book according to Deutscher - how could a book about comparative literature possibly be "cult"?), for instance, merely evidences that Deutscher has failed to grasp Steiner's purpose. When Steiner says the "future tense" is the distinguishing feature of man, he is evidently referring to the capacity to imagine and talk about the future, to plan ahead, not the English grammatical construction employing "will" or "shall". Deutscher simplifies Steiner's arguments for his own supposedly humorous purposes, somewhat pathetically. He also fails to understand that Orwell's "Newspeak" is a satirical invention within a satirical work -as if Orwell really thought that Newspeak was a practical linguistic project! Deutscher also allows himself to dismiss Wittgenstein's notions on language, as set out in his "Tractatus", as if the great philosopher were an illiterate moron. Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century philosophy and linguistics knows that some of Wittgenstein's original propositions are now regarded as flawed - but this does not make him an ignoramus to be dismissed, along with Sapir and Whorf, with the most scathing contempt.
Finally, the author also dismisses 30 years of painstaking and ground-breaking research on the Amazonian Piraha language by the American linguist Daniel Everett as: "brouhaha"! Has Deutscher read any of Everett's work?
In the end, this book does not tell us a great deal. The part about colour perception is interesting, but the section on linguistic relatively is rehashed (Stephen Pinker already saw fit to ridicule Whorf in "The Language Instinct" over 20 years ago) and superficial. Having conveyed a few more or less amusing anecdotes, Deutscher doesn't really conclude anything.
However, his readers may well conclude that if Deutscher stops trying to be such a wit and actually concentrates on transmitting his knowledge, he may one day end up writing a worthwhile book.
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on 18 August 2010
Apart from the slightly dry introduction, this book was impossible to put down. The author's style is very appealing and it is packed with quite amazing, yet true, stories and pieces of information. The book is very well structured, taking the reader through the history of ideas regarding language development and inheritance in a logical and satisfying way. Its never overly technical but has enough to stretch your brain, and there are plenty of humorous observations to keep you emotionally involved. This is definitely worth the money, especially as the colour inserts are of such excellent quality and relevance to the subject. A great read.
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on 14 December 2011
This certainly is a decent read - as it should be, written by a languge expert. The author romps through some interesting theories - fast enough for you not to examine too closely the lack of detail and corroboration for what he is proposing. In dealing with the naming of colours - the over reliance on literary sources really does expose Duetscher's weakness. I was thinking 'woad', throughout all the pages where references to the lacking 'blue' descriptor occurred. I recommend readers should read the very small and accessible book 'Colour - Making and using dyes and pigments' by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guinuea (ISBN 0500301026) before tackling Duetscher's book because then you will not be led astray by his eloquent prose. Otherwise, this is a mildly amusing and diverting read for a rainy day.
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on 8 January 2017
I so enjoyed this book and like the author's "The Unfolding of Language" could not put it down. I could see everything in my mind's eye. It was as good as a thriller. However, I would have liked to see some discussion on how different languages might/might not shape perspectives on, say, gender/emotive/power issues--if only in the introduction. Recommended for the general reader--the chapters on colour in particular are fascinating as the stories unfold.
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