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

by Guy Deutscher (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
9543415,625 (3.8)42
A masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how--and whether--culture shapes language and language, culture.
Member:raivivek
Title:Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
Authors:Guy Deutscher (Author)
Info:Metropolitan Books (2010), 304 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:
Tags:to-read, goodreads

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Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher (2010)

  1. 40
    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 42 mentions

English (33)  Spanish (1)  All languages (34)
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
I'm not surprised that I found this book fascinating, because I find language fascinating. And I like Deutscher's writing style.
The idea that language influences thought is apparently kind of taboo nowadays in linguistic circles (or at least it was when this book was published), largely because of some dudes named Sapir and Whorf who took it to quite an extreme but didn't really have any good evidence to support their ideas (for example, that someone whose language doesn't contain a future tense wouldn't be able to understand the concept of "the future"). But it's not entirely wrong - Deutscher gives examples of three areas where language has been shown to influence thinking to a measurable extent.

If your language uses cardinal directions only, (north-south-east-west instead of left or right, in front of, or behind), you will always know where north is, and you will perform differently on certain tasks than someone who speaks an egocentric language. Say for example you were standing in front of a table with some objects on it. You're then asked to turn around and place the objects in the same order on a table behind you, on the opposite wall of the room. People who speak these two different types of languages would put the objects in the opposite order! If you speak an egocentric language, you'll place the objects that were to the left of you at table 1 to the left of you on table 2. If you speak a cardinal direction language, you'll put the objects on the north side of table 1 on the north side of table 2. Neither answer is wrong, but if you grew up speaking English which uses egocentric directions (not exclusively, obviously, but mainly for small-scale situations), you'd probably be baffled by someone who placed the objects in the opposite order from you. It wouldn't even occur to me how they were doing this task because when I'm inside a building I almost never know which direction is north.

Language can also have an effect on colour perception - for example, of two pairs of colours that are an equal number of shades apart, we view as further apart the ones that cross a linguistic colour barrier. For example, if you're an English speaker, you'd perceive a shade of green and blue as further apart than two shades of blue, even if the blues were actually further apart on the colour spectrum. If you did the same experiment with a Russian speaker, you'd get a different result because Russian has two separate words for dark blue and light blue.

Lastly, if the language you speak has gendered words in it, that will affect your assumptions and associations with the words. In English, which doesn't have any gendered words, the only gendered assumptions we have are cultural (for example, associating "nurse" with "female" and "doctor" with "male" - these have nothing to do with the actual words but with how we've been socialized). If you speak a language like French or Spanish with gendered nouns, it can have an effect on your memory. For example, it was easier for Spanish speakers to remember a female name associated with an apple than a male one, because the word for apple in Spanish is feminine.

Basically the take-away of this book is that it's less interesting what a language allows you to say than what a language requires you to say. In English, we're forced to tell our listeners when something happens because tense is built in to our verbs. I am, I was, I will be. I can't express the concept of me being without indicating when I am being! There are languages in which these aren't linked though, where I could say that I am and listeners wouldn't automatically know when I was or will be or even if I currently am! Of course you could express that if you wanted, but it's not required.

You should definitely read this book if you finished reading my review. It goes into the history of linguistic relativism, which I found really interesting, and a bunch about colour perception (the less relevant parts to language are relegated to an appendix) which I also think is interesting. Plus different experiments that were designed to help tease language from culture which is really hard to do! ( )
  katebrarian | Jul 28, 2020 |
Very, very readable, the kind of book you'll be discussing with friends after putting it down. The color chapters are by far the strongest (first and last). He gives a careful dissecting of Whorfianism and showing why he's not defending that (a good debate strategy, to be sure); however, other works argue that the evidence presented therein really does have cause and effect backwards (as far as language and thought).

I would strongly recommend reading this in conjunction with Christine Kennealy's "The First Word" and Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought," and drawing your own conclusions, assuming of course you're a linguistics nerd and have a lot of time on your hands. This, you'll get through fairly quickly: Pinker especially, though, will take you some chewing. ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
His charming writing style kept me going, but I think this could have been condensed into a long essay without losing any substance. ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
Just fascinating (but not quite as fascinating, for me, as his Unfolding of Language. This one has a slightly more generally-scientific bent while the other is more linguistic. I learned an awful lot about colour, the way we give directions, and much more. He's a terrific writer, and is on my "I will read him about any subject" mental list.

(Note: 5 stars = amazing, wonderful, 4 = very good book, 3 = decent read, 2 = disappointing, 1 = awful, just awful. I'm fairly good at picking for myself so end up with a lot of 4s). ( )
  ashleytylerjohn | Sep 19, 2018 |
My interest in [b: Through the Language Glass|8444621|Through the Language Glass Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages|Guy Deutscher|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1317066228s/8444621.jpg|13232704] came from a conversation with a friend about how the color blue was relatively recent 'invention.' This was not that the color blue didn't exist in antiquity, but rather that it didn't go by that name. How then, did the ancients view blue? How did they view colors? Like most things, there's a book for that.

[b: Through the Language Glass|8444621|Through the Language Glass Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages|Guy Deutscher|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1317066228s/8444621.jpg|13232704] not only delves into the complicated world of how language and culture affects how we organize colors, and perhaps even how we see them, but also how the science of how we perceive color and name it developed over time. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also delved into, as are the multitude of problems with it and where they just may have gotten things right. This book is dense with information, riveting in what new discoveries and alternative hypotheses it discusses, and rife with good humor.

While this book was a dry read at times, it was one I could not put down for the sheer interesting nature of all it discusses. It's a shame that so much of these topics have yet to be thoroughly discussed, but this book seems to be bringing glad tidings of a shift in focus that is more welcoming towards how culture affects language and perception. ( )
  Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (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 editionscalculated
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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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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