Through the language glass, Guy Deutscher

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:26 am

Prevailing linguistic theory would have it that all languages differ only in inconsequential ways; we only have variants of a universal form of grammar, and varying labels for things, words. Any differences between languages, if you take such a view, cannot have any psychological impact – we’re all the same, and view the world the same, whatever language we speak. Not so, argues Guy Deutscher in this delightfully written book. The language we speak can influence the way we see the world, but not in the way you might have thought.

It’s a cliché to say that German people are economical and efficient because their language is, or that the French have passion instilled in them by their mother tongue – and these cultural clichés are not born out in the evidence at all, Deutscher points out. But when it comes to other areas, colour, orientation, and gendered nouns, differences between languages change the way we see the world, he says.

More than a hundred years of debate have brought us to our current knowledge of colour linguistics (and Deutscher tells this story in the book’s first half). When it was discovered that some people didn’t classify the areas of the spectrum as we Europeans did (often from hunter gatherer societies or cultures with limited agriculture, from far-flung corners of what was then the empire), the first explanation was that there were biological differences between those with our type of colour system, and those who only had words for black, white, and red, for example. It soon became clear, though, that the difference was purely in labels, people don’t see things any differently (this was shown by asking people to categorize coloured ribbons by their differing shades), they just talk about them differently. This principle applies to other areas of vocabulary: languages may not have words for ‘pneumatic drill’ or ‘utilitarianism’, but there is nothing intrinsic in any language that prevents such ideas from being expressed. Likewise, the differences in colours and shades can be seen and expressed, but some languages just don’t have words for what we have been taught to see as different colours (where we have ‘blue’ and ‘green’, some languages have just one word, ‘grue’).

So far, no contradiction of the assumptions of linguistic theory. But the causal link that was first suspected to go from perception to language, it has now been found, actually may go the other way. Tests have shown that your language affects your perception in subtle ways. Russians, who have two distinct words for blue (light and dark) where we have one, will use different parts of the brain when trying to classify shades of blue. They may see the same thing, but their perception of it is coloured by the language they speak. It is in the language of orientation (right/left and in front/behind), though, that the book really comes alive.

Where we might answer the question ‘Where’s the salt?’ by saying ‘In front of you’ or ‘To your left’, some languages have no words to convey such information (known as egocentric directions). Rather, they will talk about things being ‘North’ or ‘South’ of you: they simply don’t have the words to direct you in relation to your own body. This has implications beyond the obvious need to always be aware of your orientation with regard to the cardinal directions. Every memory you hold is logged in the same framework – and when recounting a story, the exact orientation of each element and person must be recalled in order to tell it so that others will understand it.

Having shown that the way we see things (colour), and the way we perceive and remember ourselves in our environment (orientation) can vary depending on the language we speak, Deutscher finally discusses the impact of gendered nouns on our perceptions. He recounts an experiment in which people (who spoke a language that attributed gender to nouns, ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ as in English) were asked to make up a story for each day of the week. People consistently made their protagonist of the same gender as the day’s gender in their language, so if Monday was a ‘he’ and Tuesday a ‘she’ the story would be about a man on Monday and a woman on Tuesday. These feminine and masculine associations extend themselves, in the same way, to all the objects that we have words for.

Though these differences can only be glimpsed through the rudimentary neurological or psychological techniques at our current disposal, they hint at enormous depths to the differences languages can impose on the way we see the world. Deutscher’s book, erudite and amusing (he’s very fond, as you might have expected, on clever word-play) has plumbed the shallows with aplomb.


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