There was much talk, a couple of months ago, about a NYT Times Magazine article called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” by Guy Deutscher (whose earlier book I discussed here and here). I didn’t read it, because I knew Metropolitan Books was sending me a copy of the book it was based on, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. The book arrived in due course, and now that I’ve finished reading it I’m filing my report.
As I expected, this is a very good book, and I hope a lot of people read it. Deutscher has a gift for explaining difficult issues in a way that most people should be able to follow not only with comprehension but with enjoyment; his robust sense of humor is certainly an asset here. Furthermore, the subject of his book, the ways in which languages may influence the thoughts of their speakers, is such a contentious one, and its history is so full of scholarly errors and downright nonsense, that it took a brave man to wade into it at all. I don’t think all the parts of the book are equally successful, but he certainly doesn’t fall into any of the obvious traps, and for that alone he is to be commended (and perhaps issued a Medal of Courage).
The thing is, this is not really a single book except in the sense that it is all crammed into one set of covers. It is two different books separated by a barely relevant rant. The first book, and the one that is of most interest to me, is his Part I: The Language Mirror. This is a fascinating investigation of the history of how the Western intellectual world has dealt with color and how people see it, and how they saw it long ago. He starts with William Gladstone and his 1858 Studies On Homer And The Homeric Age, a massive three-volume work that was savaged by reviewers (the Times regretted that “so much fertility should be fertility of weeds, and that so much eloquence should be as the tinkling cymbal and the sounding brass”). The bit that is of interest here is what Deutscher calls “one unassuming chapter, tucked away at the end of the last volume” (you can read it at Google Books) titled “Homer’s Perceptions and Use of Colour.” Deutscher says (and this will give you a sample of his style):
Gladstone’s scrutiny of the Iliad and the Odyssey revealed that there is something awry about Homer’s descriptions of color, and the conclusions Gladstone draws from his discovery are so radical and so bewildering that his contemporaries are entirely unable to digest them and largely dismiss them out of hand. But before long, Gladstone’s conundrum will launch a thousand ships of learning, have a profound effect on the development of at least three academic disciplines, and trigger a war over the control of language between nature and culture that after 150 years shows no sign of abating.
As he sums it up, “what Gladstone was proposing was nothing less than universal color blindness among the ancient Greeks.” He goes on to discuss Lazarus Geiger, who “reconstructed a complete chronological sequence for the emergence of sensitivity to different prismatic colors” and asked the crucial question “Can the difference between [the ancient Greeks] and us be only in the naming, or in the perception itself?” Then there was Hugo Magnus, who decided sensitivity to colors had been evolving since ancient times, and William Rivers (Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I psychiatrist), who studied the color sense of the Torres Strait Islanders. In the chapter “Those Who Said Our Things Before Us,” he brings the story up to the present, discussing the well-known findings of Berlin and Kay. Most of this is long-forgotten history, dug up and recounted with riveting enthusiasm, and I would happily recommend the book based on this part alone.
Part II: The Language Lens is basically an extended discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, starting with a nice section on Wilhelm von Humboldt, moves on to Sapir (who formulated the principle of linguistic relativity) and Whorf (who “expounded the power of our mother tongue to influence not just our thoughts and perceptions but even the physics of the cosmos”), and describes current work on color terms, spatial relations, and grammatical gender that is relevant to the issue. All of this is interesting (and the excursus on the evidentiality system of the Amazonian language Matsés is astonishing—I read large chunks of it to my wife so she could be astonished too), but I didn’t find it as gripping on the whole because I’ve been keeping up with the debate and was aware of the research of people like Lera Boroditsky. Also, no matter how you slice it, the effects that our native language may have on how we think are too subtle to be sexy in the way Whorf’s vasty theories were; as linguist Derek Bickerton put it in his NYT review, those facets of language “do not involve ‘fundamental aspects of our thought,’ as he claims, but relatively minor ones.” But for anyone interested in Sapir-Whorf the book will provide a lively and useful survey.
The bit that irritated me was sandwiched in between (it’s the last chapter in Part I). It’s called “Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd” for no particular reason, and it focuses on linguistic complexity. My reaction is mine and may not be anyone else’s; Bickerton, for example, loved it: “He brings off a superb ’emperor has no clothes’ moment by demonstrating that the ‘fact’ (attested in countless linguistic texts) that all languages are equally complex has no empirical basis whatsoever.” But to me he demonstrates a somewhat crazed obsession with that very minor “fact.” Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but it started for a good reason (because racists kept claiming primitive people spoke primitive languages), the fact that it’s an exaggeration is pretty obvious on the face of it, and to attack it with such force (given that it plays no part whatever in the actual work of linguistics) makes one look as picky as the people who insist on demolishing the statement that “all men are created equal.” When you find yourself saying things like “For decades, linguists have elevated the hollow slogan that ‘all languages are equally complex’ to a fundamental tenet of their discipline, zealously suppressing as heresy any suggestion that the complexity of any areas of grammar could reflect aspects of society,” you need to step back and reconsider. Frankly, this chapter annoyed me so much that I put the book down, delaying this review by a couple of weeks.
But that’s a quibble. The book is good, and I urge anyone interested in the topic to read it.