Through The Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher

>> Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TITLE: Through The Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World
AUTHOR: Guy Deutscher

PAGES: 249
PUBLISHER: William Heinemann

TYPE: Non fiction

A masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how—and whether—culture shapes language and language, culture

Linguistics has long shied away from claiming any link between a language and the culture of its speakers: too much simplistic (even bigoted) chatter about the romance of Italian and the goose-stepping orderliness of German has made serious thinkers wary of the entire subject. But now, acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the issue. Can culture influence language—and vice versa? Can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts? Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for "blue"?

Challenging the consensus that the fundaments of language are hard-wired in our genes and thus universal, Deutscher argues that the answer to all these questions is—yes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water—a "she"—becomes a "he" once you dip a tea bag into her, demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial.
Mind-blowing. That's the best description for this book. Anyone who's got even a mild interest in linguistics has probably heard all that rubbish about how language determines what a culture is able to think about: how cultures who don't have a future tense are incapable of thinking about the future, and so on. Deutscher thinks this is rubbish as well (and gleefully demolishes these claims), but his point is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, we're perfectly able to think (and talk!) about the future even if we don't have a future tense, but what he sees as the big difference between languages is what they force their speakers to include. A very simple example he uses: if he says in English that he spent last evening with his neighbour, he can easily keep to himself whether it was a female or male neighbour. But if I was telling my mum the same thing in Spanish, I'd have to necessarily disclose that fact, when I used either "vecino" or "vecina"!

Is it possible that having to convey particular bits of information every single time we speak changes our perception of the world in any way? You'll have to read to find out, and I strongly recommend that you do. In addition to being mind-blowing and very clearly evidence-based, which I appreciated, it's a very entertaining book. Deutscher transmits his enthusiasm for his subject matter beautifully, and you can't help but share his excitement as you read.



jmc,  23 November 2011 at 14:18  

This sounds fascinating.  Adding it to my TBB list!

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