Geoffrey Fox's Reviews > Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
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Dec 14, 2012

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Read in August, 2011

This digressive examination of whether and, if so, how a speaker's language structures his/her thoughts contains two interesting arguments bundled with amusing anecdotes about odd languages and linguists. Some of the descriptions of non-Western languages, and even of Western languages (English among them) at earlier stages of development, show truly surprising ways of putting together information, such as numbers of tenses, whether person and time of action are included in verb or noun or in separate words (as in modern English), and even the number of sounds available to speakers. Current consensus: No language is a prison of thought; the speaker of any language can find a way to express any idea, even if s/he has to invent or borrow new vocabulary for some of it. But some languages oblige the speaker to give information that is optional in other languages. The handiest example is the English pronouns; if I'm speaking of a person, I can't say "it" visited me, I have to let you know whether the person was "he" or "she". If we're speaking Turkish (or any of many other languages with unsexed pronouns), I can leave the sex of the person ambiguous if I choose — or add something if I want to let you know.

The first of the two interesting arguments is about the language of color. As William Gladstone discovered in his monumental study of Homer, there are no color references beyond "black" (meaning dark), "white" or light, and red in the Odyssey or Iliad. (I had had no idea that the politician Gladstone, before becoming PM, had been such an important scholar). The sea or sky are never described as blue, the word sometimes translated as "green" is really much vaguer (could be yellow, or could just mean "ripe"). Later research revealed that no ancient language, or modern language of preliterate simple societies, has a developed vocabulary for all the colors that you or I would see and name and that surround them in their environment. Gladstone and generations of later linguists assumed there was something wrong with primitive and ancient people's color vision. But no: Deutscher reports all the tests that have shown that even people who have no names for many color tones can see them perfectly well if they need to. They don't think of the sky as "blue" because it does not seem to them to be an object, just a vast emptiness, and as people become more aware of different colors blue is always (so far in all the studies) the last to be named, because it just doesn't appear much in their environment (except that empty sky). We today are far more sensitive to colors than our ancestors because of all the colored objects on the market and in our household and on our computer screens etc. For people a few centuries back, distinguishing between bright and dark and red (because of blood, symbolizing life) was quite enough.

The second argument is more amusing though less important: How assigning gender to inanimate objects affects, but only slightly, the way people perceive them. The German "die Brucke" is described as female, graceful, delicate, etc., the Spanish "el puente" as male, big, sturdy, the English "bridge" is simply a thing with no preconception about its delicacy or strength. But all three words refer to the same object. The sexual connotations of dish, spoon, sea, etc. are faint and of little consequence to most speakers in ordinary life, but can add flavor to the poetry in those languages that have not (as in English) lost their genders.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Dirk (new)

Dirk Fascinating stuff. Have you looked at The Language Instinct by Pinker or anything by John McWhorter (John McWhorter)?

Geoffrey Fox Not yet, but I've liked other things I've read by Pinker. Deutscher stretches hard to argue against Pinker, that the structure of one's language shapes (however slightly) the structure of thought, but he doesn't come up with anything more than what I've noted here. I suppose even Pinker would acknowledge that the slight influence Deutscher claims is real, but not terribly important. I'm not familiar (yet) with McWhorter; I'll look him up.

message 3: by Clark (last edited Aug 04, 2011 11:53AM) (new)

Clark Zlotchew This is fascinating material (I see I've just plagiarized Dirk). Some languages seem to have fewer names for colors than English and most European languages, but modify those few color names, usually by comparing it to some object associated with the color. Some African languages have one color word for what we call blue and green. But they can modify the word with "sky" (for blue) and perhaps "leaf" for green. But we that too for gradations of color. We say navy blue, royal blue, sky blue, baby blue, light blue, etc. Apparently there were no European language word for the color "orange" before the fruit was introduced. Also interesting: women seem to know more names for color gradations than men.

message 4: by Aric (new) - added it

Aric I might have to check this one out!

message 5: by Eva (new)

Eva My first language (Hungarian),like Turkish, lacks gender specific personal pronouns, and my parents occasionally (and unconsciously)shuffled s/he, his/her, even though they were very nearly bilingual. I found that there was virtually no ambiguity about who was being referred to, and thus the lack is inconsequential. I would say that, quite possibly, the necessity of using gendered pronouns actually creates distinctions, which are basically meaningless, thus perhaps encouraging an assumption of differentness, when none in fact need exist. Of course, English is a bit of a hybrid, since we manage quite well with ungendered plural pronouns.

Geoffrey Fox Thanks, Eva. I didn't know that about Hungarian. We all manage to express ourselves, in whatever language, but the ways we do it may be more or less complicated in one language or another. Learning another language is like opening a door into another way of putting images and sounds together, which is another way of thinking. A good exercise for any of us.

message 7: by Clark (last edited Dec 17, 2012 11:49AM) (new)

Clark Zlotchew Geof, Excellent analysis. I have noticed in a phone conversation with someone who is perfectly bilingual (Spanish and English), he chose to tell me, in English, about his new friend. This illustrates that in English I couldn't tell if the friend was male or female, but in Spanish it would have been absolutely and immediately clear.

message 8: by Geoffrey (last edited Jul 22, 2013 04:22AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Geoffrey Fox Try Turkish. (I have, but I haven't made a lot of progress.) In poems of Yurus Emre (14th century), you don't know whether the lover who inspires such passion is male or female or Allah it/him/herself. Which is probably just the way he wanted it; as a sufi, he must have felt that what mattered was the act of love itself, not the object. Rendering such ambiguity in English translation has defeated most who have tried. Thanks for your comment, Clark.

message 9: by Clark (new)

Clark Zlotchew Very interesting. The Sufi love poetry as you describe the ambiguity (man, woman, God) reminds me of the Spanish mystical poetry of the 16th centrury, in which the Amada and the amante is God and the mystic who attempts to commune with Him directly. If you trace back the use of amatory language to refer to the relationship of God with his worshippers, you can take kthe Church's position that the biblical Song of Song, (Son of Solomon) describes the love of God for his church. I don't agree with that interpretation; I have to agree with the scholars that it's simply a swedding song an really refers to love of a woman and man (the bride groom and bride). But the 16th-century Spanish mystics did use language that would make someone think it was a man talking about his deep love for a woman.

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