Book review: Through the Language Glass

Whether and how our languages shape our thoughts, perceptions and worldviews is a perennially vexed subject. (For starters, what do we mean by shape and thoughts?) Known as linguistic relativity or the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the nature and extent of this influence have proved difficult to establish. Traditionally, some philosophers made grandiose claims about it, but the currency of such claims plummeted in the 20th century.

Linguist Guy Deutscher, in a NYT Magazine article titled “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” says that with “Science and Linguistics” (PDF), Benjamin Whorf “seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think”. I don’t know if Whorf deserves so much responsibility, or blame, for whole-generational seduction,* but here’s a pertinent excerpt from his influential essay:

Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.

Despite linguistic relativity’s fall from academic favour, it persists – thrives, even – in the popular imagination. In his new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher looks at how valid it really is and what conclusions may be drawn about it. Sifting through a weight of data and theories, he describes several ways in which a weak form of linguistic relativity seems to obtain – colour perception, gender, and spatial orientation – and puts the case that language can influence our thoughts and thought patterns not radically, but more significantly than is sometimes acknowledged.

After a prologue summarising the issues, the book begins with colour. Deutscher delivers a long, thoughtful and fascinating account of how William Gladstone’s Homeric scholarship brought attention to the peculiar treatment of colour in the Iliad and Odyssey: colour descriptions were strangely lacking, and where they occurred they seemed wayward (e.g., “the wine-dark sea”). Gladstone’s explanation was equally strange: “nothing less than universal color blindness among the ancient Greeks” (37). Quoting Gladstone:

Colours were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of colour; and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself. (93)

Gladstone suggested that maybe colours (as abstract phenomena distinct from objects) started striking people only after the development of artificial colours – such as in paints and dyes. The sky and the sea are blue to us, but is this because we’re so familiar with the colour in more tangible forms? Curious, Deutscher carried out a harmless experiment on his daughter, avoiding mention of the colour of the sky in order to see when she would deduce it (71).

I’m grateful to Deutscher for telling the story of Lazarus Geiger, a philologist who picked up where Gladstone left off by investigating the description of colour in old texts in languages other than Ancient Greek. He found similar deficiencies throughout this etymological terrain, and also that colour terms when they emerge do so “according to a definite succession, and . . . in the same order everywhere” (45). Geiger’s call to others to explain this went sadly unheeded, and he died young, in 1870, his prescient ideas overlooked.

In 1969, Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Terms reiterated Geiger’s sequence of colour terms, more or less. It’s still being explored and argued over, having become a focal point of an old debate: is colour perception a human universal, or culturally imposed? Deutscher believes that “culture enjoys freedom within constraints” (90), and that “nature’s hold loosens considerably in the realms of abstraction” (97). Different languages divide the colour spectrum differently, and subtly so; TTLG supplies a helpful narrative with enough detail to enlighten without becoming laborious.

At the end of part 1, Deutscher skewers what he calls “the dogma of equal complexity” (105): the idea that all languages are equally complex. I’ve come across this notion before, but I didn’t think it was a widespread dogma. (I’m still not sure that it is, but then I’m not schooled in linguistics textbooks.) In any case, Deutscher’s corrective – or reminder – is worth repeating: “there is no a priori reason why different languages should all mysteriously converge on even roughly the same degree of complexity” (107).

Then we’re back to Edward Sapir, and the “linguistically determined thought world” described by his student, Whorf. Deutscher conveys the “heady atmosphere of discovery” (130) that allowed a “daring idea about the power of language” to shoot to prominence. He tells how the idea later crashed just as precipitously “when it transpired that Sapir and especially his student Whorf had attributed far-fetched cognitive consequences to what were in fact mere differences in grammatical organization” (131):**

The excitement about the – largely factual – strangeness of expression in American Indian languages was somehow taken as sufficient to deduce the – largely fictional – differences in their speakers’ perceptions and thoughts. (140)

Pop-Whorfianism often takes the form “no word for X”, and a language’s lack of a certain term is then supposed to imply its speakers’ lack of the concept. Deutscher rails against the “toxic fallacy” (147) that our language limits what we are able to understand, asking rhetorically whether people who have never heard the word Schadenfreude find it hard to grasp the concept. Languages are not fully directly translatable, but they are generally sufficiently so.

Deutscher quotes the anthropologist Franz Boas, who in 1938 wrote that grammar “determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed”, and that these aspects vary between languages (151). Years later, Roman Jakobson repeated the essential point: languages “differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” More recently, Barbara Schmiedtová said it’s “not about whether you can say anything in any language. The interesting thing is what you prefer to say [...] when you are under pressure, which is the normal situation when you produce language.”

Take spatial orientation. Deutscher introduces the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, which to us has a strange way of dealing with direction. Instead of right, left, behind and in front of, it uses cardinal points: the dog was east of the tree, and so on. Native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr automatically perceive object relations this way, even in dreams and in memories, and with no painstaking figgerin’, as Thurber’s Aunt Wilma might put it. It is a kind of automatised cognitive compass.

This mode of perception and description is far from unique, as TTLG outlines. Other “geographic coordinate systems” around the world take their cues from local landmarks like seas, rivers, or mountains, as distinct from the “body-framed mapping” most of us employ. Several are summarised in this presentation (PDF). Deutscher recounts how Stephen Levinson, who studied Guugu Yimithirr, asked its speakers for advice on how he might improve his sense of direction, and they suggested

the differences in brightness of the sides of trunks of particular trees, the orientation of termite mounds, wind directions in particular seasons, the flights or bats and migrating birds, and alignment of sand dunes in the coastal area. (173)

Introducing the subject of grammatical gender, Deutscher reprints Heinrich Heine’s poem Ein Fichtenbaum Steht Einsam along with two translations, one of which (Emma Lazarus’s) takes into account the fact that the German original marks one tree as male and one as female. This grammatical feature of German seems central to Heine’s metaphor, yet many translations sidestep it, referring to both trees as it.

There has been some research into how gender systems might affect our ideas about things. Is it significant (beyond grammatical curiosity) that forks in Spanish are masculine and spoons are feminine, and that this leads some people to associate certain stereotypical properties with them? Not very, in my view, though Deutscher contends that there is “little doubt that the idiosyncrasies of a gender system exert a significant influence on speakers’ thoughts”.

It depends on what you consider significant, I suppose. In some respects Deutscher’s claim is certainly fair: sexist pronoun use (and related terminology) reflects and contributes to sexist culture, as I’ve written about before. So I was a little surprised to see man used generically in TTLG: “man landed on the moon” (80). It rang oddly in my ears. And this passage gave me pause, but not in the way the author presumably intended:

But if you native speakers of English are tempted to feel sorry for those of us who are shackled by the heavy load of an irrational gender system, then think again. I would never want to change places with you. My mind may be weighed down by an arbitrary and illogical set of associations, but my world has so much to it that you entirely miss out on, because the landscape of my language is so much more fertile than your arid desert of “it’s.” (215)

It could just be the way I read it, but this struck me as an oddly triumphalist way to make a point. Sometimes, too, Deutscher sets up his arguments a bit heavy-handedly:

If there is one phrase that represents a rock of stability in the flux of human experience, then surely it would be that timeless question ‘Daddy, why is the sky blue?’
Or would it?” (31)

I find constructions like this tiresome and contrived, and I think they could lead a reader to feel underwhelmed instead of pleased by the point eventually made. For the most part, though, Deutscher writes skilfully, making light work of knotty and subtle concepts. Human brains are “innately equipped with powerful pattern-recognition algorithms, which sort similar objects into groups” (12); TTLG shows how we do them a disservice by ignoring the facts, wherever they lead us.

Through the Language Glass is not quite as impressive as Deutscher’s earlier The Unfolding of Language, which focused on how languages function and change, but it is an engrossing and entertaining book that offers general readers an illuminating and accessible account of linguistic relativity, and a colourful tour of many surprising linguistic features. Drawing judiciously on overlooked history and modern research, TTLG brings us usefully up to date on complex and oft-misunderstood issues that affect us all – however subtly – every day.

Disclosure: Henry Holt And Company were kind enough to send me a review copy of this book. It’s available at Amazon, Book Depository, and your usual haunts. My review is a bit late because of a postal misunderstanding that was my own fault.

Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist. Corrections and clarifications are welcome.

[image sources: colours; compass]

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* “Though Whorf’s view of relativism is only one out of a great many, and though it has no privileged status from a scientific point of view, it does have a privileged historical status.” – George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

** Arika Okrent in her book In the Land of Invented Languages describes the idea’s fluctuating acceptability thus: “the Whorfian hypothesis endured a long half century of being proven, disproven, defended, demolished, revived, mocked, and revived again.”

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8 Responses to Book review: Through the Language Glass

  1. The Ridger says:

    It’s really too bad that languages without grammatical gender are spoken in some fairly sexist cultures. But weak Whorfism is probably true; I’m just not sure how important it is. Still, I’ll probably read this book. Thanks for the review.

  2. Stan says:

    Ridger: That’s close to how I feel about it: that it’s valid to a modest degree and in subtle ways. Teasing out the details has been (and will continue to be) a worthwhile and interesting endeavour, even if the results aren’t as exciting as they were once anticipated to be.

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    Years ago I read a sciencefiction short story about an alien who tried heroically to understand what our species was about, and why it reacted as it did to environmental and intellectual stimuli. The alien noted, for example, that the human species had a stalk protruding from the top of its torso,through which it took nourishment, among other qualities, such as hearing, vision, speech. Continuing its disquisition, the alien remarked on the concept ofr love, denoting the great philosophical store humans attributed to the biological imperative of procreation. I read the story many years ago as a child,but obviously it stayed with me. It reminds me of the Whorfian hypothesis and how the placing of the observer with no referants equal to his own, can describe a being, an activity or a functionality. It makes for an interest5ing exercise, but I think that a scientific conclusion must be based on agreed facts before a significant conclusion can be drawn. Different languages express the same observable phenomena and aspects of reality differently; I just read a delightful volume of idiomatic expressions in variouis languages which were translated into English for comparison. The intent of each idiom was the same. The mode of expression differed.

  4. Ben T-S says:

    I really enjoyed this book as a collection of anecdotes and historical tidbits, but I must admit that Deutsher’s actual argument didn’t much interest me. And as someone unacquainted with the apparent “equal complexity” assumption, I would have like to hear a rebuttal from that camp. But I quite liked the way he strung together the history of linguistic relativity into a narrative.

  5. Stan says:

    Marc: It’s a good sign when a story stays with you so long. The ‘observer’ problem is a significant one. Not only do different languages express the same phenomena differently, but different people using the same language do. There are as many idiolects as there are speakers. And whatever we learn, regardless of how immaculate the data, becomes intelligible only through our fallible, multifariously biased minds.

    Ben: Yes, I find Deutscher to be a talented storyteller with a flair for historical narrative. Putting the case for weak forms of Whorfianism is useful, I think, because there’s so much myth and misinformation about it (not to mention disagreement and uncertainty even among specialists). For more on the complexity issue, Lousy Linguist discusses this briefly and provides a few links.

  6. [...] out for ya?”), while K International discussed how Twitter is changing language, and Stan Carey reviewed Guy Deutscher’s book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other [...]

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