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 languageand 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 isyes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian watera "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.
Language, Culture, and Thought
"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." Other authorities have been no less decided in their judgment on what different languages are good for. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain, archduke of Austria, and master of several Europe an tongues, professed to speaking "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."
A nation's language, so we are often told, reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought. Peoples in tropical climes are so laid-back it's no wonder they let most of their consonants fall by the wayside. And one need only compare the mellow sounds of Portuguese with the harshness of Spanish to understand the quintessential difference between these two neighboring cultures. The grammar of some languages is simply not logical enough to express complex ideas. German, on the other...
How does our mother tongue (Why don't we call it a "father tongue," I wonder?) shape what we see and what we don't see; how we orient ourselves in space and time; and the associations we attach to people, animals, ideas and objects? Why do some people describe the sky as black, not blue? And what exactly did Homer mean when he said "wine-dark sea"? Through the Language Glass is Guy Deutscher's exuberant and very excellent adventure among competing ideas, theories and scientific experiments to find the answers... with a gift for wordplay and a joyful scholarliness, [he] amazes the reader with the richness of linguistic variation and the refinement and inventiveness possible to human imagination and experience.
(Reviewed by Jo Perry).
Full Review (1107 words).
Deutscher has much to say about the color "blue": its presence or absence in a language or culture, its sister-color, "green" with which it combines as a single hue in some languages, and notes that it is the color most difficult for children to learn.
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