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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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