Skip to main content

Through the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher *****

One of my colleagues reviewed a book a while ago which he had an immediate aversion to because it was recommended on the cover by Carol Vorderman. I felt a similar emotion but in the opposite direction when I saw the comment Jaw-droppingly wonderful on the cover attributed to Stephen Fry. Although Fry does have a tendency to over-exaggerate in his praise, anything our Stephen liked has to be worth a look.
In fact, this book was a delight. It opens up an area of science I hadn’t really taken much notice of apart from a nod to Steven Pinker – linguistics. Guy Deutscher points out that this is one of those soft sciences that had a long struggle to really understand what is needed to be a science. He points out esteemed textbooks that made plonking statements like ‘All languages are equally complex.’ In fact this seems to be central dogma in linguistics, yet it turns out, as Deutscher reveals, there is no scientific basis for this assertion whatsoever:
When it comes to the “central finding” about the equal complexity of languages, linguists never bother to reveal where, when, or how the discover was made. They are saying: “Just trust us, we know.” Well, don’t trust us. We have no idea!
As it happens, the dogma of equal complexity is based on no evidence whatsoever.
Through the book, Deutscher examines three key examples where language seems to have an influence on how we see the world. The first is through our perception of colour. Many will be aware that there was something rather different about the way the Ancient Greeks described colour – the ‘wine dark sea’ and all that. They really didn’t seem to have a grasp of the concept of blue at all, for example. We discover how many cultures seem to only distinguish black white and red, and the surprising implications of the way we decide to break up colours on the way we see the world.
The second example he uses is direction. This may seem straight forward, but even that remark is dubious – because the concept of ‘forward’ (along with ‘backward’, ‘left’ and ‘right’) are not consistently adopted across the world. A fair number of languages instead use absolute directions, (compass directions, for example) rather than those associated with our personal orientation. This has some fascinating implications for the link between language and our interaction with reality.
Finally, he examines the use of gender, and how the varying use of gender in language can flavour our attitude to things and particularly to poetry and literature. I have to confess I didn’t agree with Deutscher here. He says But if you native speakers of English are tempted to feel sorry for those of us who are shackled by the heavy load of an irrational gender system, then think again. I would never want to change places with you. He argues that the richness of language and symbolism that emerges makes it worth all the pain of learning what gender (say) a curling iron is. I’m sorry – this is garbage. The sooner languages dispose of this oddity, the better. But this is merely a disagreement on interpretation. The chapter on gender systems is still a great read.
If I’m honest, I hate the book’s title, but that apart, it’s hard to find anything negative to say. I perhaps would have liked to have seen more about the ‘Babel-17′ concept. This is the idea in Samuel R. Delany’s novel of the same name that some languages put a lot more information in a word than others. So, for example, you can call the place a fox lives a foxhole or a den. The first word has much more information (what animal lives there, what form the home takes) than the second. In the novel, Babel-17 is an artificial language where the name for something contains so much information that it enables you to construct it. Of course no real language goes this far, or ever could, but Deutscher only touches on the idea of some words containing more information than others (e.g. gender).
One of the reasons I liked this book so much is that Deutscher has such a wonderful way of getting his message across while remaining highly approachable. I’m reminded of what the great Richard Feynman did for physics – and there can be no greater accolade. You don’t have to be in the least interested in linguistics per se to enjoy this book. It’s a joy to read. Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…