Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

by Guy Deutscher

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805081954
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/31/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.62(w) x 11.04(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Guy Deutscher is the author of The Unfolding of Language. Formerly a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, and of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He lives in Oxford, England.

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Language, Culture, and Thought

"There are four tongues worthy of the world's use," says the Talmud: "Greek for song, Latin for war, Syriac for lamentation, and Hebrew for ordinary speech." Other authorities have been no less decided in their judgment on what different languages are good for. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain, archduke of Austria, and master of several Europe an tongues, professed to speaking "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."

A nation's language, so we are often told, reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought. Peoples in tropical climes are so laid-back it's no wonder they let most of their consonants fall by the wayside. And one need only compare the mellow sounds of Portuguese with the harshness of Spanish to understand the quintessential difference between these two neighboring cultures. The grammar of some languages is simply not logical enough to express complex ideas. German, on the other hand, is an ideal vehicle for formulating the most precise philosophical profundities, as it is a particularly orderly language, which is why the Germans have such orderly minds. (But can one not hear the goose step in its gauche, humorless sounds?) Some languages don't even have a future tense, so their speakers naturally have no grasp of the future. The Babylonians would have been hard-pressed to understand Crime and Punishment, because their language used one and the same word to describe both of these concepts. The craggy fjords are audible in the precipitous intonation of Norwegian, and you can hear the dark l's of Russian in Tchaikovsky's lugubrious tunes. French is not only a Romance language but the language of romance par excellence. English is an adaptable, even promiscuous language, and Italian—ah, Italian!

Many a dinner table conversation is embellished by such vignettes, for few subjects lend themselves more readily to disquisition than the character of different languages and their speakers. And yet should these lofty observations be carried away from the conviviality of the dining room to the chill of the study, they would quickly collapse like a soufflé of airy anecdote— at best amusing and meaningless, at worst bigoted and absurd. Most foreigners cannot hear the difference between rugged Norwegian and the endless plains of Swedish. The industrious Protestant Danes have dropped more consonants onto their icy windswept soil than any indolent tropical tribe. And if Germans do have systematic minds, this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother tongue has exhausted their brains' capacity to cope with any further irregularity. English speakers can hold lengthy conversations about forthcoming events wholly in the present tense (I'm flying to Vancouver next week . . . ) without any detectable loosening in their grip on the concepts of futurity. No language—not even that of the most "primitive" tribes—is inherently unsuitable for expressing the most complex ideas. Any shortcomings in a language's ability to philosophize simply boil down to the lack of some specialized abstract vocabulary and perhaps a few syntactic constructions, but these can easily be borrowed, just as all Europe an languages pinched their verbal philosophical tool kit from Latin, which in turn lifted it wholesale from Greek. If speakers of any tribal tongue were so minded, they could easily do the same today, and it would be eminently possible to deliberate in Zulu about the respective merits of empiricism and rationalism or to hold forth about existentialist phenomenology in West Greenlandic.

If musings on nations and languages were merely aired over aperitifs, they could be indulged as harmless, if nonsensical, diversions. But as it happens, the subject has also exercised high and learned minds throughout the ages. Philosophers of all persuasions and nationalities have lined up to proclaim that each language reflects the qualities of the nation that speaks it. In the seventeenth century, the Englishman Francis Bacon explained that one can infer "significant marks of the genius and manners of people and nations from their languages." "Everything confirms," agreed the Frenchman étienne de Condillac a century later, "that each language expresses the character of the people who speak it." His younger contemporary, the German Johann Gottfried Herder, concurred that "the intellect and the character of every nation are stamped in its language." Industrious nations, he said, "have an abundance of moods in their verbs, while more refined nations have a large amount of nouns that have been exalted to abstract notions." In short, "the genius of a nation is nowhere better revealed than in the physiognomy of its speech." The American Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it all up in 1844: "We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument to which each forcible individual in a course of many hundred years has contributed a stone."

The only problem with this impressive international unanimity is that it breaks down as soon as thinkers move on from the general principles to reflect on the particular qualities (or otherwise) of particular languages, and about what these linguistic qualities can tell about the qualities (or otherwise) of particular nations. In 1889, Emerson's words were assigned as an essay topic to the seventeen-year-old Bertrand Russell, when he was at a crammer in London preparing for the scholarship entrance exam to Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell responded with these pearls: "We may study the character of a people by the ideas which its language best expresses. French, for instance, contains such words as 'spirituel,' or 'l'esprit,' which in English can scarcely be expressed at all; whence we naturally draw the inference, which may be confirmed by actual observation, that the French have more 'esprit,' and are more 'spirituel' than the English."

Cicero, on the other hand, drew exactly the opposite inference from the lack of a word in a language. In his De oratore of 55 bc, he embarked on a lengthy sermon about the lack of a Greek equivalent for the Latin word ineptus (meaning "impertinent" or "tactless"). Russell would have concluded that the Greeks had such impeccable manners that they simply did not need a word to describe a nonexistent flaw. Not so Cicero: for him, the absence of the word was a proof that the fault was so widespread among the Greeks that they didn't even notice it.

The language of the Romans was itself not always immune to censure. Some twelve centuries after Cicero, Dante Alighieri surveyed the dialects of Italy in his De vulgari eloquentia and declared that "what the Romans speak is not so much a vernacular as a vile jargon . . . and this should come as no surprise, for they also stand out among all Italians for the ugliness of their manners and their outward appearance."

No one would dream of entertaining such sentiments about the French language, which is not only romantic and spirituel but also, of course, the paragon of logic and clarity. We have this on no lesser authority than the French themselves. In 1894, the distinguished critic Ferdinand Brunetière informed the members of the Académie française, on the occasion of his election to this illustrious institution, that French was "the most logical, the clearest, and the most transparent language that has ever been spoken by man." Brunetière, in turn, had this on the authority of a long line of savants, including Voltaire in the eighteenth century, who affirmed that the unique genius of the French language was its clearness and order. And Voltaire himself owed this insight to an astonishing discovery made a whole century earlier, in 1669, to be precise. The French grammarians of the seventeenth century had spent decades trying to understand why it was that French possessed clarity beyond all other languages in the world and why, as one member of the Académie put it, French was endowed with such clarity and precision that simply translating into it had the effect of a real commentary. 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. As the later thinker Antoine de Rivarol put it: "What is not clear may be English, Italian, Greek, or Latin" but "ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français."

Not all intellectuals of the world unite, however, in concurring with this analysis. Equally distinguished thinkers— strangely enough, mostly from outside France—have expressed different opinions. The renowned Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, for example, believed that English was superior to French in a whole range of attributes, including logic, for as opposed to French, English is a "methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much for finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency." Jespersen concludes: "As the language is, so also is the nation."

Table of Contents

Prologue: Language, Culture, and Thought 1

Part I The Language Mirror

1 Naming the Raibow 25

2 A Long-Wave Herring 41

3 The Rude Populations Inhabiting foreign Lands 58

4 Those Who Said Our Things Before Us 79

5 Plato and Macedonian Swineherd 99

Part II The Language Lens

6 Crying Whorf 129

7 Where the Sun Doesn't Rise in the East 157

8 Sex and Syntax 194

9 Russian Blues 217

Epilogue: Forgive Us Our Ignorances

Appendix: Color: In the Eye of the Beholder 241

Notes 251

Bibliography 274

Acknowledgments 293

Illustration Credits 294

Index 295

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Through the Language Glass 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I had never read anything on the subject of linguistics and I still found it fairly easy to understand. It was slightly boring in some parts, but for the most part it was fairly interesting and very informative.
Janientrelac on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A well researched and delightfully funny book about language. Lots of it is about colour and colour names from Homer and Gladstone to Russian blue. I don't think Deutscher is interested in colour, it's just the best and most well researched aspect of language he can use but he explains Homer's violet sheep.
Magus_Manders on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher aims to show that the language with which one is raised has a definite affect on the way a person perceives and interprets their universe. That being the case, it may come as some surprise that he spends a large portion of the book refuting theories that one's native language affects there perception of their universe. He also argues against many of what he describes as the basic assumptions of linguistics; the most predominate being that all languages are equally complex. In a rigorous analysis of theories and data past and present, Deutscher attempts to prove that language defines not just how we talk, but how we think. Through the Language Glass focuses on three areas of language: color, gender, and orientation. Before one assumes that this is a linguistic racial socio-sexual analysis, let it be stated that he means the naming of colors, the gendered classification of nouns, and manners of stating the positions of things in space. Color is his biggest issue, and begins back with William E. Gladstone and his expansive Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Deutscher points out that, buried deep in Gladstone's third volume, is a chapter regarding the severe lack of color terms in Homer. Gladstone theorized that his was due to the lack of a full set of color-detecting cones in the eyes of classical man, thereby making them partially colorblind. Though Gladstone was wrong in theory, his observations were correct, serving as a jumping off point as Deutscher covers the almost-forgotten research that suggests that not only are color names arbitrary, but that the perception of color varies from language to language. Along the way, he debunks numerous theories that would otherwise support his hypothesis and explores a handful of languages which operate in vastly different ways from any European tongue. He puts the same critical eye on gender and orientation, though at much less length. Indeed, the chapters on color fill almost half of the book, and give him some of his best evidence. Deutscher is intensely critical, and for good reason. His hypothesis is very unpopular among linguists, in large part because many of his predecessors proposing similar ideas were outright wrong. He has to both save the reputation and prove his point at the same time, and this he does rather deftly. He is equally firm with the science behind said evidence, pointing out the flaws in every experiment and limitations in every data set. Indeed, he spends so much time on criticism, it takes till nearly the last chapter to actually start stating his argument. Surprisingly, however, it does not come off as rushed or ill-structured. Instead, he outright states that this work is very much the faulty, short-sighted foundation on which the research of the future will be built. He is simply putting together data that suggest a much deeper and nuanced correlation between language and perception than it is currently possible to test. His tone can, in the beginning, sound almost pompous, but a with an open mind one realizes that he is writing with a biting, self-deprecating wit that makes Through the Language Glass not just readable, but funny. Deutscher still has a lot of work to do, but this latest endeavor is strong, convincing, and well worth more study. This book is an excellent piece of scholarship for both the academic and the popular reader with a curiosity on how our cultures, and our brains, work.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting and well-written book, but one that disappointed me compared to the author's previous work, "The Unfolding of Language". That, for me, was a truly mind- bending book, which changed my beliefs about how language evolved. "Through the Language Glass" sounds equally wide-ranging -- the blurb on the American edition says adds as a subtitle "Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages". As it happens, the British edition has a more accurate subtitle "How Words Color Your World." The first half of the book is mostly about color, and the words we use for color. In the nineteenth century, scholars (led by British PM Gladstone) began to address the fact that some very important historical languages, including Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit, did not use nearly as many color words as do modern European languages. Later researchers showed that many non-European languages shared this trait. The book describes how this study proceeded, what conclusions it reached, and what seems to Deutscher the best explanation. This part of the book, about 120 pages long, is almost as interesting and just as well written as "Unfolding", though it clearly is a work on a smaller canvas. I would give this section five stars.The second half of the book examines other areas in which language and culture have interacted -- complexity, gender, and physical orientation. The discussion of complexity is interesting, but very brief. The section on physical orientation strikes me more as a curiosity than something with real importance in the innate/cultural debate. And the section on gender reports a series of complex experiments that, it seems to me, yield very thin results. I would have to give the second half of the book three stars.Adding it up, this book is well worth the time and attention of anyone interested in linguistics -- and, for the benefit of non- professionals, gracefully written. It's not as satisfying as the earlier work, but I still look forward to the next.
JolleyG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author is very entertaining and makes a potentially dry subject very juicy. Not just for linguists! I have studied a number of "foreign" languages, and I could relate to much of what he said about color identification in different languages, and languages that force you to refer to everything as male-female and/or neuter. Occasionally I got bored when he went into a lot of detail about the scientific studies of how people of different language backgrounds discern color, but otherwise I found it totally fascinating.
petterw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Does the language you speak affect the way you think? That´s what I call an intriguing and challenging premise for a book about languages and culture. Guy Deutcher hasn´t written a page turner, but it is hard not share his enthusiasm for his subject, although he at times uses a lot of pages to reach his conclusions. Along the way, however, I have learned a lot about languages that I didn´t know, about different unknown cultures, about Homer and The Ilyad, about colour perception, about the brain and what we don´t know about its workings, etc. etc. This book intrigued and challenged me, yes, but not necessesarily for the reasons the author primarily intended. But who cares - I enjoyed the ride.
fist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book deals mainly with the expression of colour and physical orientation in various languages and whether the perception, too, of these varies too for native speakers. Not super-easy, but highly interesting. I have now finally understood why Homer's sea was 'wine-red'. I still wonder, though, whether native speakers of languages with a subjonctif/conjunctivus view the world differently - and if so, how. Would look forward to another book by Guy Deutscher on this topic.
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