Through the Language Glass: Guy Deutscher


Through the Language Glass

Another non-fiction book with another annoying subtitle. I know, I know, I am basically shouting into the wind with this, but it still drives me nuts. In the same way that the subtitle “a novel” on a novel makes me crazy. If people are somehow incapable of discerning that a book is a work of fiction, a “novel” as it were, then maybe they should just live in that fantasy world where the author’s made-up action is real. I can’t imagine it would really cause any problems in their everyday lives, and the rest of us would be spared the annoyance of “a novel” on the covers of  half of the books we read.

I want to make the same impassioned rant against the non-fiction subtitle, but I know that the marketing people are convinced (perhaps rightly) that people will not turn the book over to check the back and see what it’s about. In this case, it’s “why the world looks different in other languages”, a subject that we all know is extremely relevant to my interests. My own personal experience tells me that the world does, in fact, look different in other languages, and although I’ve read a lot of things that try to convince me otherwise (see Steven Pinker et al.), the arguments presented about how language does not influence thought are never more persuasive than that experience. 

I’ve studied a few languages and gained some level of mastery in a couple, in addition to teaching/tutoring languages, and I’ve seen in myself and in my students the way language changes personality and ideas expressed. In fact, I used to tell my students that they needed to stop trying to stuff everything into the box of their native language, i.e., translating back and forth constantly, and reach instead for a more intuitive understanding of how speakers of this language naturally express themselves. This is, obviously, easier said than done. That said, though, I don’t buy into that whole “some ideas are just inexpressible in [language]” bit. As a translator, my bread and butter is expressing ideas from one language in another language. The tricky bit is how some ideas are more natural in one language. 

And this is basically the central pillar in Deutscher’s argument, once he’s walked his readers through some really interesting and well-studied examples of how language influences thought. He quotes linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” And that is something I want to type out furiously in all caps every time I see one of those “10 untranslatable words” lists. Deutscher continues by noting all the things we are forced to say in English or French or German or Chinese or whatever, and it is fascinating. Languages with gendered (linguistic gender; let’s not start arguing about sexism here. We do enough of that with other books.) words force the speaker to specify whether their neighbour (going with one example in the book) is male or female, while in English we have no such imperative. And Deutscher argues that it is this, this difference in what we are forced to say, that has a measurable effect on how we perceive the world around us. 

He presents some really incredible examples of languages entirely different from English to bolster his case. Like the Matses, a tribe in the tropical rain forest near the Amazon. Their language “compels them to make distinctions of mind-blowing subtlety whenever they report events.” You can’t just say when something took place in the past, you have to specify one of three different degrees of pastness. And there is a lot of other stuff that the Matses language makes you say. When describing this language and what it forces you to say, the author is careful to note that all of these things could be indicated in English. We can express different kinds of pastness, we just don’t have to. 

Before getting to his discussion of what we are forced to say as speakers of any given language, Deutscher gives us a tour of the history of the thinking on the connection between language and thought, using the intriguing example of the development of color words. I actually heard a Radiolab story on this very thing, so I was glad to be able to get a more detailed overview of the whole thing. Basically, languages develop the word for blue last, so does that mean speakers of pre-blue languages do not actually see blue? He holds onto this blue thing all the way through the book, so that the story of the development and perception of “blue” becomes the backbone from which all the linguistic history and science hangs. 

He takes you from where the question of blue started (William Gladstone studying Homer in the late 1800s) right up to the latest experiments on the perception of blue and how having or not having a word for it influences the way we think (short answer: looks like), introducing all kinds of key figures and research in linguistics along the way, in addition to languages that just seem like crazy town, like more than one language which uses compass directions rather than body-centric directions for everything. Imagine telling someone they have a little something to the north on their east cheek. And he explains all of this with a delightful snark and wit. 

Like when he is taking down the idea of linguistic relativity:

…[W]hen you ask someone, in perfect English prose and in the present tense, something like “are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grasp of the concept of futurity is slipping? Your idea of time changing in manifold reciprocity? The hope and resilience of your spirit and the fabric of your humanity beginning to fail?

Or when he tackles the idea of an earlier era that the French language “possessed clarity beyond all other languages in the world”:

In the end, after years of travail, it was Louis Le Laboureur who discovered in 1669 that the answer was simplicity itself. His painstaking grammatical researches revealed that, in contrast to speakers of other languages, “we French follow in all our utterances exactly the order of thought, which is the order of Nature.” No wonder, then, that French can never be obscure.

And although language nerd that I am, this book could have been written in the driest, most academic tone imaginable, and I still would’ve been enjoying every page of it, fortunately for you non-language nerds, it is so very readable and engaging. I would strongly suggest you read it and then whip it out as a defense every time someone tries to cram that Inuit-have-a-hundred-words-for-snow crap down your throat. Plus, you will have some weird realizations about the colour blue!


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