In college I majored in linguistics with a specialization in cognition, and minored in psychology. My favorite part of this language/brain area of stuIn college I majored in linguistics with a specialization in cognition, and minored in psychology. My favorite part of this language/brain area of study was linguistic relativity (A.K.A. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)--although I didn't have time then to do anything but scratch the surface. The premise is that the language(s) you speak affect the way you think/perceive reality, and that the way you think/perceive reality molds the language(s) you speak; creating a self-reinforcing cycle.
It's been over 7 years now since I finished school, and the trauma of college anxiety has worn-off enough that I'm interested in digging a little deeper into certain areas that I just got an introduction to in school. I decided to start with linguistic relativity, and picked-up this book which seemed to fall along those lines. To my naïve surprise linguistic relativity is an embarrassment to the linguistic community because Sapir and Whorf took the basic idea of linguistic relativity (that resonated so much with me as a student) all the way to crazy town (e.g. The Hopi Native Americans are incapable of understanding time the way everyone else does because of how their language represents time, etc). But, never fear! Linguistic relativity is not completely dead! This book takes the stance that there is a fascinating kernel of truth to linguistic relativity in spite of its trip to crazy town. What a relief!
I think this idea is so interesting and feels so true to me because I grew up bilingual. If you only speak one language natively it's easy to think that concepts just come out of you and that language is just the vessel. But bilingualism offers contrast, and in that contrast you realize that language isn't merely a bystander. It seems completely natural to me that the emotions or thoughts that I have to express are filtered through their delivery system. I would notice that I could tell an English-speaking friend a story in English, and a Spanish-speaking friend the same story in Spanish--and it wouldn't be the same story. The basic points were the same, but the connotations and emphasis were very different; driven by linguistic and cultural influences. In the English story my concepts were getting Englishified, and in the Spanish story my concepts were getting Spanishified.
Not only do I appreciate Guy Deutscher taking the controversial stance of partially reviving select aspects of linguistic relativity in a community of intellectuals who want to distance themselves from it as much as possible, but his writing style was thoroughly enjoyable. Many popular science books are so dry, you can tell they are not written by writers. You get a list of facts, not a story. Not so here, Deutscher is a wonderful storyteller. His humor is a little odd, in an eccentric-yet-charismatic sort of way. Maybe this is entirely because I know he is an Israeli-born British linguist, but I felt like there were elements of foreign language humor/British humor, and linguist humor in his style. Foreign language humor/British humor in the amount of deadpan sarcasm and sass, and linguist humor in how he would make self-referential jokes, playing around with language. Being a linguist myself who was raised speaking a foreign language, I found him hilarious.
I wish there were more diverse examples of linguistic relativity in this book. Maybe there isn't much else that has been proven empirically yet? Maybe this was just meant to be an introduction? The main example of this book was color terms, with small sections on geographic orientation and gender. I definitely want more!
I also noticed a feminist and self-referential aspect to this book that I thought was really awesome. In English (like most other languages) there's a default to male gender when speaking about people in general, yet look at the following snippet from this book:
"Languages vary greatly across the globe, and everyone knows that the particular language a child happens to learn is just an accident of the particular culture she stumbled into."
The child is a she in the sentence above. This is just one of many examples of gender default reversal throughout the book. This she stands out to English speakers because it violates an aspect of English grammar that we all know about (most of us subconsciously)--that people are male until stated otherwise. I would expect that if you are an English-speaking male (and not a linguist or an English teacher) you've probably never noticed that English, by default, creates people in your image. I would also expect that if you are a female English speaker you've probably noticed this discrepancy. In a book about how language influences thought wherein 1 of 3 sections is about gender, this is hardly a coincidence. I think that in explaining how language influences thought, Deutscher is choosing to use language in a way that will make the reader notice things she hasn't before (see, I just did it too). Deutscher you clever dog!
Now that I've given an example while explaining how Deutscher gives examples in how he gives examples, I'm going to stop; there is no way this review is going to get any better. Self-referential loops are like catnip to linguists.
One small complaint about the eBook edition: At one point the phrase the bridge was said to be el puento in Spanish (instead of el puente). Come on! How did the editor miss a typo in such a common language like Spanish? This typo wasn't in the hard-copy of the book I have....more
Very similar to the first book, "Freakonomics." This is my review of that:
"Learning about the subtle (and often counterintuitive) influences and motivVery similar to the first book, "Freakonomics." This is my review of that:
"Learning about the subtle (and often counterintuitive) influences and motivations that shape the world was extremely engaging. Distills complex social issues into bite-size pieces while preserving the integrity of good science. Highly recommend to anyone who can appreciate good data, or who is even remotely curious about how things work."
This book was slightly different in that:
1) It seemed to be made-up of even smaller scattered pieces, which meant that engagement required almost no attention span at all--but it became a little difficult to keep track of all the little tidbits along the way. 2) This book also had slightly more interesting/controversial topics....more
Learning about the subtle (and often counterintuitive) influences and motivations that shape the world was extremely engaging. Distills complex socialLearning about the subtle (and often counterintuitive) influences and motivations that shape the world was extremely engaging. Distills complex social issues into bite-size pieces while preserving the integrity of good science. Highly recommend to anyone who can appreciate good data, or who is even remotely curious about how things work....more
So. Much. Information. I'm really glad I read this book. I feel like I learned a ton of interesting facts, and so much more than I could have imaginedSo. Much. Information. I'm really glad I read this book. I feel like I learned a ton of interesting facts, and so much more than I could have imagined about how people are affected by their environment. The only downsides were:
1) This is not really a criticism of the book, but was a detraction for me. There were parts that I was more interested in than others, so I felt like most of the time I wanted to know more or less detail than what I was getting. For example, being a linguist (but one who hasn't studied much about writing systems), I loved the mere chapter concerning writing systems and wanted more. On the other side of this coin, I don't have any intrinsic interest in the details concerning the rise of agriculture (which unfortunately was the main thrust of the book). Even the parts that I felt were a bit of a slog were worthwhile, I just wish they were more concise.
2) So. Much. Repetition. I understand that pop-science books are written in a way so that they are accessible to the general public, but so many general points (and details) are reiterated so many times that it seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. The book's main point is to prove how a small set of variables has determined the discrepant fates of human cultures. Each section addresses examples from history, followed by a lot of spelling-out about how the examples relate back to this small set of variables. I know that to make a persuasive argument you have to relate your examples back to your point, but this could have been done with a lot less repetition. This becomes more and more true as the book progresses. I found myself thinking, "I know where he's going with this, but I guess I'll read through him saying it again." On a positive note, this makes reading only individual sections possible, or reading this book piecemeal over a long period of time.
3) This is really the compounding effect of criticisms 1 and 2. So much repetition in parts that I already got more detail than I wanted made for some dense reading at times....more