Summary and book reviews of Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher

Through the Language Glass

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

by Guy Deutscher

Through the Language Glass
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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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Book Summary

A masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how—and whether—culture shapes language and language, culture.

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 language—and 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 is—yes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water—a "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.

PROLOGUE
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...

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Reviews

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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).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Deutscher's erudite yet entertaining arguments (and cunning illustrations) usually stick; they make for a fascinating exploration of culture's ability to shape the mind.

Library Journal

Readers will find themselves enchanted by topics heretofore not even in their purview. Highly recommended for all who love accessible books on the history of thought and who love the warmth of writing that makes them think.

New Scientist

Through The Language Glass is so robustly researched and wonderfully told that it is hard to put down… Deutscher makes a convincing case for the influence of language on thought, and in doing so he reveals as much about the way color words shape our perception as about the way that scientific dogma and fashion can blind us.

The Sunday Times (UK)

This fabulously interesting book describes an area of intellectual history replete with brilliant leaps of intuition and crazy dead-ends. Guy Deutscher, who combines enthusiasm with scholarly pugnacity, is a vigorous and engaging guide to it… A remarkably rich, provocative, and intelligent work.

Financial Times (UK)

A brilliant account of linguistic research over two centuries… As befits a book about language, this inspiring amalgam of cultural history and science is beautifully written.

The Spectator (UK)

A delight to read.

The Guardian (UK)

Fascinating and well written… Deutscher’s scholarly and eloquent prose made the book an enjoyable read and I learnt lots of great anecdotes along the way.

Author Blurb Stephen Fry
Jaw-droppingly wonderful… A marvelous and surprising book. The ironic, playful tone at the beginning gradates into something serious that is never pompous, something intellectually and historically complex and yet always pellucidly laid out. It left me breathless and dizzy with delight.

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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 ...

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