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Through the Language Glass: Why the World…

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other… (2010)

by Guy Deutscher

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Recently added byprivate library, gabyt, RutledgeHomeschool, tayitude, antigoglin, swanksalot, GDQ
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    chmod007: The first few chapters of Through The Language Glass talk about color as a cultural construct, drawing upon 19th century inquiries into the works of Homer and his seeming indifference to the finer hues of the spectrum. The beginning of TOOCITBOTBM starts with a similar exploration of ancient conceptions (or lack thereof) of consciousness, supported by linguistic evidence.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
In fact, in his voluminous musings on this subject, Humboldt abided by the first two commandments for any great thinker: (1)Thou shalt be vague, (2) Thou shalt not eschew self-contradiction.

Guy Deutscher takes the reader on a history of a branch of linguistics, trying to figure out if a person's native language actually influences his or her thoughts and perceptions. As a linguistics major, I loved the exploration not only of dozens and dozens of languages, but also of the evolution of linguistics as a science. Deutscher explores three aspects of language in particular: how languages name and label color (for all of Homer's detailed descriptions, he has a very limited color palate. The books starts off with a 19th century linguist hypothesizing that the ancients' eyes were less evolved); how languages handle spatial terms and relative orientation; and the phenomenon of gender in language (think masculine and feminine nouns in French and Spanish, and an Australian language that has 15 genders). Deutscher circuitously veers away from old, euro-centric postulations, such as "the simplicity or complexity of a culture is reflected in the simplicity or complexity of its language," and examines language complexity and cultural influences on language in a surprisingly humorous and breezy style (I laughed out loud throughout the book, though I could never decide if I liked his cheeky, linguistically acrobatic showmanship -- did the cleverness enhance my enjoyment of the book, or distract my focus from the content to the zingy author?).

After an exhaustive but entertaining romp through the evolution of the science itself (Like any pendulum worth it's weight, received opinion finds it difficult to swing from one extreme position and settle directly in the middle, without first hurtling all the way back to the opposite extreme.), and the progression of theories about the essential question (does language affect/influence thought and perception), Deutscher eventually concludes that is does. While interesting, I felt this was the weakest part of the book: there was a lot of research and anecdotes, but too little conclusion. Deutscher feels, and I agree, that more light will be shed on the subject the more the scientific world body learns about the workings of the human brain. Fascinating reading.
1 vote AMQS | Jan 25, 2015 |
Really interesting overview of some key questions in linguistics. The section about language and color perception was fascinating, and the chapter about the Guugu Yimidhirr's use of cardinal direction instead of relative direction was extremely cool. ( )
  AThurman | Dec 7, 2014 |
There are a lot of big, interesting questions to be asked about language and psychology and culture. Does language divide things up in ways that are "natural," based on categories that exist in the real world, or is it entirely arbitrary? For instance, are "blue" and "green" obvious, separate colors that any language would recognize as distinct, or can we slice up the spectrum any old way? And what effects do linguistic differences have on us? If you speak a language that has only one word for both "blue" and "green," do you actually perceive those colors differently? Does it make any real difference in how you think about color in the world around you?

Deutscher delves into these questions in a fair amount of detail, with a particular focus on those questions of color, getting into how various languages differ when it comes to labeling colors and how ideas about what that means have changed over the years. This is more interesting than it sounds, honestly. I was fascinated to learn, among other things, that it was once seriously believed by many people that the ancient Greeks must have been colorblind, because Homer, whose descriptions are otherwise quite vivid, uses a notably limited number of color words, some of which seem very strangely chosen.

But while color is a main focus of the book, it's not the only one. Deutscher also considers the possibility that languages that categorize nouns randomly as masculine or feminine might have some influence on how people think of the objects named by those nouns. And he introduces us to an Australian language where it is impossible to say something is "in front of you" or "to your left" or "to your right." Instead, everything is expressed using cardinal directions, so that the thing in front of you is described instead as being "north of you," but only, of course, if you happen to be facing north. Perhaps unsurprisingly, speakers of this language are really good at knowing which direction is which at all times, which Deutscher suggests is because their language forces them to pay attention to this subject.

His arguments on that, and on pretty much everything else, seem reasonable and not remotely radical, but according to Deutscher, they are opposed to the conventional wisdom in linguistics today, which insists that the cultural and psychological influences of language are, if not nonexistent, then never more than utterly trivial. He sees this stance as a case of the pendulum swinging back a bit too far, after a period in which many linguists bought into now thoroughly discredited ideas about language shaping human thought even to the extent that that which we don't have words for is literally unthinkable.

It's all very interesting stuff, or at least it is to me, anyway. And Deutscher is a great writer, explaining complicated things in a lucid, engaging, easy-to-understand fashion, peppered with sly touches of humor. Definitely recommended for people with an interest in language and culture. And possibly those interested in the psychology of color, too. ( )
15 vote bragan | Apr 14, 2014 |
The debate is ages old: Where does language come from? Is it an artifact of our culture or written in our very DNA? In recent years, the leading linguists have seemingly settled the issue: all languages are fundamentally the same and the particular language we speak does not shape our thinking in any significant way. Guy Deutscher says they’re wrong. From Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, and through a strange and dazzling history of the color blue, Deutscher argues that our mother tongues do indeed shape our experiences of the world. Audacious, delightful, and provocative, Through the Language Glass is destined to become a classic of intellectual discovery. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Mar 4, 2014 |
I can understand people who feel that Through the Language Glass didn't quite fulfill its promise. The subtitle might be more accurately, "does the world look different in other languages?" And the answer is yes, but in a limited way that won't be satisfying to those who want the answer to be an unequivocal yes. People feel that the world is different (for them) in different languages, and even that they are different in other languages, but there just isn't the scientific data to back those feelings up.

(For me, and this is a brief digression, I do suspect that those who "feel different" when they speak other languages aren't taking into account context. For example, say you speak Hebrew with your family and English in school. You are a different person in those two contexts, but not because of the language you speak. You're adapting yourself to the situation, including the language. I suspect that even years after that division is so clear, where you might speak Hebrew to someone in the workplace, the associations remain.)

Anyway, I found the book itself a bit dense and prone to repetition, but overall, very interesting. I loved the discussion of the issue of colour in Homer's work, as it's something that inevitably came up when discussing his epithets in class. Why "wine-dark sea"? How could the sea look like wine? And this book has the answer.

It's fairly conservative in its conclusions, not going beyond the available data -- and mocking rather people who did go beyond their data -- and explaining everything at some length rather than packing in various new ideas. It does include a lot of examples and interesting facts about various languages, like languages which don't use egocentric directions but always geographical ones. I would've been interested in a bit more on gendered language, but it doesn't seem as if the work has been done there, yet. It also gives some credit for ideas that were ahead of their time, even if they were founded on shaky principles, which was interesting.

Ultimately, Deutscher explains why early assumptions that language affects the way we perceive the world were wrong -- but then goes on to explain that that instinctive feeling isn't wrong in itself. ( )
5 vote shanaqui | Jan 25, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Deutscher starts with the puzzling fact that many languages lack words for what (to English speakers) seem to be basic colors. For anyone interested in the development of ideas, Deutscher’s first four chapters make fascinating reading. Did you know that the British statesman William Gladstone was also an accomplished Greek scholar who, noting among other things the surprising absence of any term for “blue” in classical Greek texts, theorized that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans when those texts were composed? Or that a little-known 19th-century philologist named Lazarus Geiger made profound and surprising discoveries about how languages in general divide up the color spectrum, only to have his discoveries ignored and forgotten and then rediscovered a century later?
Deutscher argues that the key to differences between languages is a contained in a maxim of the linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” As an example, he quotes the English statement, “I spent last night with a neighbour”, in which we may keep private whether the person was male or female.

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Pfeiffer, MartinÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"There are four tongues worthy of the world's use," says the Talmud:  "Greek for song, Latin for war, Syriac for lamentation, and Hebrew for ordinary speech."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080508195X, Hardcover)

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. Audacious, delightful, and field-changing, Through the Language Glass is a classic of intellectual discovery.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:21 -0400)

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

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