Through the Language Glass

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

by Guy Deutscher

Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher X
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2010, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2011, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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A joyful exploration of the way languages influence culture, thought, and our experience of the world

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.

Deutscher argues that "cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways," creating "habits of mind that language can instill on the ground level of thought: on memory, attention, perception, and associations." Color perception (blue in particular) is the earthiest and most fascinating of these, something most of us would imagine is universal in all human beings, and the least susceptible to cultural influence. Deutscher begins with Homer's "wine-dark sea" and Thomas Gladstone's analysis of Homer's use of color. Gladstone noted that Homer's sea and oxen are wine-colored; the sea, iron, and sheep in the Cyclops's cave are "violet"; and chloros (green) describes "faces pale with fear," fresh twigs and olive wood, and honey. Most strange, Gladstone observes that Homer's sky is "'starry... broad... great... iron... or copper; ... [but] never blue.'"

Gladstone concluded that ancient Greeks were blue-blind and literally saw the world in black and white and red - I thought right away of Grecian urns - with violet or wine being "shades of darkness," and chloros describing a particular paleness. Deutscher deftly maneuvers the reader among later studies of literature, color perception and expression (the Vedic poets never say "blue" either, while Biblical Hebrew didn't have a word for "blue") to demonstrate that there was nothing primitive in the way the Greeks' eyes saw things: "people can see the differences between all imaginable shades of colors and yet have no standard names in their language for basic colors such as green or blue."

Deutscher's stunning revelation is that despite what we feel and what we see, "'blue' is ultimately a cultural convention." Deutscher demonstrates that languages have color-names that don't exist for speakers of other tongues (Russian has "siniy and goluboy, a dark and a light blue absent from an English-speaker's perception or vocabulary"), and cautions that it should not seem strange that people who have "never seen an object with a color similar to the sky fail to find a special name for this great expanse of nothingness."

Deutscher then does for syntax, morphology, gender, complexity of vocabulary and spatial orientation what he did for color - he shows what has been hypothesized about language and what has been discovered to demonstrate just how language affects thought: "If different languages influence their speakers' minds in varying ways, this is not because of what each language allows people to think but rather because of the kinds of information each language habitually obliges people to think about."

I would have liked to see Deutscher examine the figurative language characteristic of particular languages, and to have learned how the various color dialects are expressed in visual art. But the ride he gives the reader here is exciting enough. Whether discussing the gender (or drab sexlessness if you speak English) of turnips, the exact degree of "pastness" a language does or doesn't discern, the shimmering brightness or darkness of an object, the color of the sky (if it even has a color), or our place in space (in front or behind, up or down, north or south), Deutscher, with a gift for wordplay and a joyful scholarliness, amazes the reader with the richness of linguistic variation and the refinement and inventiveness possible to human imagination and experience:

"No language - not even that of the most 'primitive' tribes - is inherently unsuitable for expressing the most complex ideas. Any shortcomings in a language's ability to philosophize simply boil down to the lack of some specialized abstract vocabulary and perhaps a few syntactic constructions, but these can easily be borrowed, just as all European languages pinched their verbal philosophical tool kit from Latin, which in turn lifted it wholesale from Greek…"

Reviewed by Jo Perry

This review was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

When is blue green, and when is it grue?

blue 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.

Did you know?

  • Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green; when linguists discuss this combined color they refer to it as grue.
  • Vietnamese, Thai and Korean have one word for green and blue; as do the Pashtun people of Afghanistan and N.W. Pakistan.
  • Japanese has a word for blue and green but the word for blue is often used for colors that English speakers would consider green such as traffic lights and unripe fruit.
  • In traditional Celtic languages such as Welsh, the word glas could refer to blue but also some shades of green and grey
  • Ancient Greek lacked a word for blue (other than kyanos, the root of cyan, which was used to describe dark blue enamel), thus Homer referred to the sea as "wine-dark".
  • In Arabic the word for blue is azrap and green is akhdar, however the color of the sky is often referred to as akhdar in classical poetry.
  • In Sudan it is considered impolite to use the word black, aswad, in reference to skin color. So, darker-skinned Arabs are called akhdar (green) while black Arabs and Africans are azrap (blue).
  • Many Turkik languages distinguish between kök as the color of the sky, sea and green plants, and jasâl, the color of man-made green things.
  • Russian treats light blue as a separate color from plain or dark blue (in a similar way that English distinguishes between red and pink).

Blue isn't the only slippery color. The German makers of this online color-naming quiz assert that culture (region) and gender affect what we see. I was surprised at how difficult it was to decide which color was what.


Disappearing Languages
Deutscher repeatedly demonstrates the crucial importance of the study of rare languages, and laments the rate at which these languages are being lost. National Geographic reports, "Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth - many of them not yet recorded - may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain." National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project identifies, documents and maps endangered languages in an effort to record the speakers' threatened culture.


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Reviewed by Jo Perry

This review was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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