Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher
Publisher: Metropolitan
Year: 2010
Pages: 320

Those of you who know grammar snobs1 (I am admittedly one, myself) may be tempted to think that we are all William Safires, wrinkling our noses at slang and treating publicly-dangled participles like a fart in church. In fact, linguists (as distinct from grammatical pedants) are a pretty liberal bunch, or at least those of us studying since the second half of the twentieth century.

I add that last clause because the study of linguistics—especially its intersection with sociology or anthropology—has had a rather dialectical history. It was not altogether long ago that the study of languages and what they did was the sole province of rich white males, who did what rich white males have (generally) historically done, namely sneer at cultures different from their own. When colonial Europeans found their way into Africa and encountered tribes with languages consisting of clicking noises, for instance, the conclusions reached were that indigenous languages were primitive languages for primitive people. In other words, language reflects its speakers; to a similar degree, language affects its speakers. It was not until sixty or so years that the trend in academia became the mantra that “There are no primitive languages”, which is more or less true. But it also engendered a form of strict relativism that stifled the study of the relationship between language and culture.

Though Deutscher covers several topics, his longest and most important is about the language of color, and he begins in 1858 in London, England. William Ewart Gladstone, though otherwise unremarkable, publishes a huge (1700+ pages) tome entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, which was both widely read (and thrusting Gladstone into some degree of literary prominence) and widely panned by critics. Amidst its enormous bulk, however, was a jewel of a section concerning Homer’s use of color words. They are all wrong, you see; the famous “wine-dark sea” (literally “wine-looking sea”) doesn’t make much sense unless you allow for significant poetic license, and that’s only one of many examples. There were five problems, which I crib here from Deutscher:

  1. The use of the same word to denote colors which, according to us, are essentially different.
  2. The description of the same object under epithets of color of color fundamentally disagreeing one from the other.
  3. The slight use of color, and its absence from certain cases where we might confidently expect it.
  4. The vast predominance of the most crude and elemental forms of color, black and white, over every other.
  5. The small size of Homer’s color vocabulary.

Gladstone’s proposed explanation? The ancient Greeks were largely color-blind, except for perhaps red,2, and the facility of color vision was a recent evolution in human eyesight. This is, of course, not the case (not quite, anyway), though one must credit Gladstone not only for his meticulous argument but for his foresight as well.

I will spare you the intervening story (which is quite good) and skip to the general conclusion, namely that while the biological mechanism of sight was not deficient in the ancient Greeks, and has not changed appreciably since their era, it turns out that there is an identifiable pattern to the way that cultures categorize and name colors. Much of it has to do with the necessity of differentiating colors, which follows (to some degree) the spectra in ascending order (e.g. red is first) and has much to do with the availability of the color in vivid and/or available artificial forms. Though a plausible (initially) hypothesis is that the eyes of “evolved” societies had evolved the capacity for higher wavelengths of light3, the most likely scenario is that colors like red are more readily found in nature, not simply in the form of bright red blood4 but in materials for dyes. Though even primitive cultures can see a large blue object (the sky), blue and purple dyes are much more rare, and their existence in nature less vivid. It may come as no surprise, then, to find a culture which lumps English-speakers’ “yellow” and “green” together under one color, even though it seems clear to us that they are distinct are merit distinct names.

To illustrate why this is a fruitless conceit on our part, Deutscher gives the example of the Russian синий (siniy) and голубой (goluboy), which are Russian words for dark blue and light blue, respectively5. An English-speaker, if pressed, could offer the “navy” for dark blue, but Russian is distinct in that the division between dark and light blue is as clear within their language as green and yellow for us, and our perception of visual information (not the biomechanical processing of light in the eyes, but our internal categorization of colors) directly affects brain response during experiments. In other words, Russians don’t see blue any different than Americans, but because the Russian language and Russian culture differentiates and categorizes siniy and goluboy, how Russian speakers perceive shades of blue is therefore affected. Perhaps we, with our single word for both light and dark blue, appears to Russians as linguistically-impoverished savages.

Of course, none of this is particularly controversial except to suggest that the language we speak affects how we think. It stands apart from the old canards that Deutscher mentions in his intro, such as the orderliness of the German language indicating the orderliness of the German mind; the silky romance of French indicates the silky romance of Frenchmen; and so on and so forth. All it means, of course, is that language both reflects and influences our taxonomy of the world—nothing less, nothing more. The same principles at work in the section on color also work for the Aboriginal language that uses only cardinal direction, not speaker-relative direction (e.g., “south” instead of “left (if you’re facing west)”). But such differences are narrow in their focus and not tied to larger notions of culture and ill-informed cultural conceits.

The central theme of Through the Language Glass is not groundbreaking; it’s not even particularly surprising once you think about it. Significantly, though, it’s an area one is not likely to think about, since native language is so apt to produce blind spots. Even simple hypothetical scenarios posited by Deutscher are enough to make one realize just how absurd and arbitrary our notions of foreign languages (and their hypothesized effects) really are. In that respect, it’s a startling and refreshing book.

  1. Or a SNOOT, as David Foster Wallace liked to call them[]
  2. Note that when Gladstone wrote, color-blindness was not particularly understood or even known.[]
  3. In fact, various versions of this were considered true at points in the past.[]
  4. The word for “red” in most languages comes from or relates to the word for blood. See my Wednesday’s Word on the topic.[]
  5. Interestingly, though Deutscher doesn’t mention it, the latter is also Russian slang for a homosexual. Proposed etymologies are here.[]
§6294 · January 14, 2011 · Tags: , , , , , ·

3 Comments to “Through the Language Glass”

  1. Fips says:

    Great review. I’ve read some other stuff by Deutscher, he does a good job of making what could otherwise be a very complicated topic eminently readable.

    Also, thought you might be interested to peruse this debate on language’s influence on the way we think. Mark Liberman (also of Language Log fame) puts up a valiant defence.

  2. Fips says:

    Just wanted to link you to another review of the book by Stan Carey, “a scientist and writer turned editor and swivel-chair linguist”.

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