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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7012713,533 (3.88)31
  1. 20
    The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker (petterw)
  2. 10
    What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be! by John McWhorter (amyblue)
  3. 00
    The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (chmod007)
    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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» See also 31 mentions

English (26)  Spanish (1)  All languages (27)
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
Of all the classes that I took while an undergrad at the University of Michigan, there are a handful that really stick out. LING 211, Introduction to Linguistics, was one of those classes. I actually dallied with the idea of making linguistics my minor because I enjoyed the class so much. Although upper-level linguistics pretty quickly disabused me of that notion, I still retain a real interest in linguistics, particularly sociolinguistics.

The Sapir-Whorf theory of sociolinguistics was trendy almost 100 years ago: it suggested that the language we use controls the way that we think. It's an initially intriguing hypothesis with a lot of instinctual appeal. If a language doesn't have a word for a particular phenomenon, or lacks a particular tense, why wouldn't speakers of that language have a hard time conceiving of that phenomenon or that kind of world? Until you realize that some languages, like the Italian I studied as an undergrad, have an entire tense for the remote past, passato remoto, while the English language doesn't. Does that mean English speakers can't conceive of events very far in the past? Of course not. Does that mean that we don't understand implicitly terms like saudade, a melancholy longing for things that are gone and will never come back? Again, of course not, but for a while educated people would have thought so.

Deutscher reinvigorates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis among a very few limited lines: primarily, he focuses on the idea that our languages impact how we think about color, along with how we process geolocation, and objects in gendered languages. As speakers of a neuter language, we don't think about objects as inherently gendered things. But if you speak a language that thinks of bridges as masculine, like Spanish, bridges are strong and sturdy. If you speak a language that thinks of bridges as feminine, like German, however, you're much more likely to implicitly think of bridges as beautiful and delicate. And color! There's an incredible explanation of the Homeric description of the sea as "wine-dark" that I can't possibly condense, but if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be enraptured.

Fascinating stuff, for a person who has a real interest in psychology and language. If not, probably not a text for you. Since I'm the former rather than the latter, I loved this book and found it incredibly compelling. ( )
  ghneumann | Jan 16, 2016 |
Recommendation seconded by Absinthe.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (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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Guy Deutscherprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:04 -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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