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Quick Summary: “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher separates fact from fiction in a burgeoning, but rather controversial field: linguistic relativity. In addition to sketching out a brief history of the research done in the area, Deutscher’s book recalls hundreds of experiments which show why, how and to what extent language influences thought.
Who Should Read “Through the Language Glass”? And Why?
Have you ever watched Arrival?
Or, at least, those wonderful and wonderfully funny language-related comedy skits by Fry & Laurie?
If the answer is “no” to both questions, be aware that you need no more than a few minutes to watch the latter. And you should – because then you’ll know much better what this book is about: the power of language to influence worldviews.
A recommended read for anyone even vaguely interested in language and/or our capability to learn and use one: in one sentence, there are few better introductions to linguistic relativity and related topics than Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass.
Through the Language Glass Summary
Part I: The Language Mirror
1. Naming the Rainbow
If you know a thing or two about British history, then the name of William Ewart Gladstone would certainly mean something to you.
After all, the guy was UK’s Prime Minister for 12 years in the 19th century!
But that’s not why Deutscher spends a large part of the first chapter of Through the Language Glass talking about him.
You see, while out of office, Gladstone devoted “his legendary energies to the realm of the mind, and in particular to his burning intellectual passion” Homer.
And ten years before he became Prime Minister for the first time, Gladstone published a book now read almost exclusively by classicists and linguists: Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age.
Well, because in it, there’s a chapter whose content is even more interesting than its title: “Homer’s Perception and Use of Color.”
Gladstone’s analysis of Homer’s epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey, of course – “revealed that there is something awry about Homer’s descriptions of color.”
#1. Homer often uses the same word to denote colors which, according to us, are essentially different; for example, both the sea and the oxen are described as having the appearance of wine.
#2. Homer often describes the same object with incompatible color terms: iron can be violet, gray, and horse-colored.
#3. Homer’s epics are remarkably colorless: e.g., he not once uses the color “blue” even when describing the sky and the sea;
#4. On the other hand, he uses the colors “black” and “white” almost constantly: they appear 170 and 100 times in the epics; for comparison, the next more prominent color is red: 13 times;
#5. All in all, Homer’s color vocabulary is very small.
No other explanation than this: the Greeks didn’t see colors the way we do.
2. A Long-Wave Herring
Even if you knew Gladstone, there’s a good chance you’ve probably never heard of Lazarus Geiger, a German Jewish philosopher and philologist.
And that’s too bad, because, according to Brent Berlin and Paul Key, he was the guy “who first detected universal sequence in the acquisition of basic color terms.”
Basically, what he did is he started out where Gladstone left off, asking himself whether the Greeks using so few words for colors were an exception or a rule as far as ancient civilizations were concerned.
It turned out that it isn’t only Homer, but also the Bible and the Indian Vedas that treat color strangely – at least in relation to modern standards.
For one, neither the Vedas nor the Old Testament – just like all Homer – ever describe the sky as being blue.
In September 1867, in his hometown of Frankfurt-at-Mein, Geiger opened his lecture in which he shared his findings with two thought-provoking questions:
“Has human sensation, has perception by the senses, a history? Did everything in the human sense organs thousands of years ago function exactly as it does now, or can we perhaps show that at some remote period these organs must have been partly incapable of their present performance?”
Now, though initially dismissive of Gladstone and Geiger, many people – especially after Lamarck and Darwin – during the late 19th century, started interpreting these questions as rhetorical.
Simply put, the eyes of the ancients weren’t as developed as our eyes today: they saw fewer colors just like, say, dogs do.
There’s only one problem with this.
How can we know what they actually saw?
For example, the Ancient Mycenaeans adored the lapis lazuli. Why would they if they hadn’t been able to perceive the color blue?
Could it be that they simply didn’t have a word for it?
3. The Rude Populations Inhabiting Foreign Lands
“To most people who have heard of him,” writes Deutscher, “W. H. R. Rivers is the compassionate psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon during World War I.”
To linguists, however, he is one of the guys who proved the evolutionists wrong and the culturalists right – when it comes to color perception, that is.
Rivers’ Expedition: Victory for the Culturalists
It all happened just at the turn of the centuries.
In 1898, W. H. R. Rivers set off on a journey to the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and had a word or two with the so-called Torres Straits Islanders.
What he discovered (mostly) boils down to this: the Islanders were pretty capable of discerning colors, but their language lacked words to pin down this perceptual capability.
For example, when asked to choose similarly colored wool pieces from a range of differently colored wool, the Islanders were just as good as the Europeans in choosing the right pieces (this is, by the way, called the Holmgren wool test).
However, when asked to describe these colors, they used the same words: for example, the word for the color red (mamamamam), derived from the word for blood (mam) was also used for pink and brown.
“Rivers’ meticulous experiments,” writes Deutscher, “thus demonstrated beyond any possible doubt that people can see the differences between all imaginable shades of colors and yet have no standard names in their language even for basic colors such as green or blue.”
However, this wasn’t the only conclusion Rivers arrived at.
Interestingly enough, the other questioned his previous findings – the ones explained above.
You see, just like Homer and Moses, for some reason, the Torres Straits Islanders did use the word “black” to describe the perfectly blue sky.
Rivers couldn’t understand this at all.
And he basically just gave up there.
“One cannot,” he wrote, “wholly ignore the fact that intelligent natives would regard it as perfectly natural to apply the same name to the brilliant blue of the sky and sea which they give to the deepest black.”
The Modern Explanation: A Counterfactual Thought Experiment
It may seem strange at first, true, but it is not really difficult to explain this, says Deutscher.
Simply put, the ancient civilizations saw these two colors as two different shades of the same color.
Here’s an interesting thought experiment in counterfactual history for you to understand this.
Just imagine the Russian anthropologist Yuri Magnovievitch Gladonov going on an expedition to the remote British Isles off the northern coast of Europe in the late 19th century.
Wouldn’t he be dumbfounded to find out that the British Islanders think that both the siniy and goluboy colors are just two shades of a single color?
They insist on calling both of them “blue,” even though they differ between them (and this is a scientific fact) as much as the colors green and blue!
The color spectrum is a continuum; different cultures divide it differently; and for some, the chunks of this spectrum are bigger, so they see many colors that others see as different like different shades of the same color.
4. Those Who Said Our Things Before Us
Or is it?
In addition to questioning the concept of a unified human color vision – across space and time – Geiger discovered something else as well.
Namely, that almost all cultures developed color words in much the same order.
First, they were aware of the difference between dark and bright, so the first two color words that appear anywhere are black and white; then followed a sensitivity to red, then yellow, then green, and finally violet and blue.
Now, if this evolution is so universal, then at least some of it must be connected to our human nature.
And in 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay – in their book Basic Color Terms – demonstrated that this is also true.
In other words, neither the culturalists nor the evolutionists were right – because neither of them was wrong to begin with.
And the reason for this is quite simple.
“The more decisive nature has been in staking out its boundaries,” explains Deutscher, “the less leeway there is for culture… On the other hand, when nature has shown even the slightest dithering or fuzziness in marking its boundaries, different cultures have far more sway over the division of concepts than anyone exposed only to the conventions of one society would imagine.”
And unlike preexisting categories (such as dogs and birds and roses), colors are not strictly divided.
It is, in other words, pretty normal to expect from all languages to have different words for dogs and birds and roses, but it is not normal to expect from all of them to distinguish between blue and green and yellow.
However, it is not strange that red is, universally, the first color to be named (that is, after black and white): it is the color of survival, the color of sex and blood.
5. Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd
It is, more or less, common knowledge that the more primitive a society is, the more primitive its language is.
Just think of all those movies when a primitive man comes to life in a modern age or arrives in a WEIRD society.
His linguistic capabilities are childish, to say the least: “me sleep here” is the best he can utter for the most part of the movie.
However, “attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain,” wrote Edward Sapir in Language in 1921, adding, quite casually, that “rightly understood, such correlations are rubbish.”
Simply put, all languages are, in one way or another, complex; it’s just that complexity works in a different.
Just think of it this way: the English language spoken by both the cops and the gangs in The Wire is equally complex but has developed in two parallel processes.
“When it comes to linguistic form,” concluded Sapir, “Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.”
And it’s even more interesting than this.
A guy named Revere Perkins, in 1992, tried to test out the commonsense theory that more complex societies develop more complex languages.
What he found out will probably surprise you: it is – prepare for it – the other way around.
In other words, the more complex a society is, the simpler the word structure.
Because complex societies are more global and more connected to the world, so they often need to explain their own contexts to strangers; and strangers want simpler explanations.
Don’t believe us?
Then, please do tell us, which language sounds to you simpler: Shakespearean English or Global English?
Yeah, we think so too.
Part II: The Language Lens
6. Crying Whorf
The abovementioned Edward Sapir is probably one of the most famous linguists nowadays; unfortunately, it is mostly through a pseudoscientific theory – further developed by one of his students, Benjamin Whorf – now known (wrongly) as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
In essence, the theory states that language categories either determine or strongly influence and limit cognitive categories.
Simply put, it means that you’d grown up a different person if, say, you grew up in Germany and acquired the German language as your first one.
In a way, it makes sense: it’s difficult to expect from a person whose language hasn’t developed simple words for complex numbers to be a good mathematician; even more relatable: do you honestly believe that we’d be as good at math as are if we still used Roman numbers to multiply and divide?
However, even though popularized by many movies (Arrival being the most famous among them) and pseudoscientific Internet articles, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is, as much as it has been tested, decidedly wrong.
Even Sapir knew this, suggesting that “it would be naïve to imagine that any analysis of experience is dependent on pattern expressed in language.”
And even though Pinker and Chomsky explicitly blame Whorf for unscientifically advocating linguistic determinism, it may be true that even he didn’t believe it to the extent he is blamed for.
Anyway, one thing isn’t naïve at all.
To phrase it the way Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson did: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”
“The crucial differences between languages, in other words,” sums up Deutscher, “are not in what each language allows its speakers to express – for, in theory, any language could express anything – but in what information each language obliges it speakers to express.”
And the examples, please?
7. Where the Sun Doesn’t Rise in the East
Well, here’s the first one.
It concerns spatial reality, and it deals primarily with the way the Aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr tribe of Far North Queensland see space and spatial relations.
To understand this better, first you need to understand the difference between relative egocentric and pure cardinal directions.
Relative egocentric directions are the ones you use on a regular basis: left, right, forward, backward, up, and down. They are called egocentric because they depend on your position (ego means “I” in Latin); and that is the exact same reason why they are called relative: no absolute direction corresponds to any of these relative directions.
Pure cardinal directions, however, are absolute: they are the directions of north, east, south, and west. If you turn around what was to your left is suddenly located on your right, but the pure cardinal direction didn’t change.
And why are the Guugu Yimithirr people so strange?
Well, because they use pure geographic directions instead of egocentric ones even when they’re talking casually between them.
For example, “if you are reading a book facing north, and a Guugu Yimithirr speaker wants to tell you to skip ahead, he will say, ‘go further east,’ because the pages are flipped from east to west.” However, “if you are looking at it facing south, the Guugu Yimithirr will, of course, say, ‘go further west.’”
You wouldn’t be able to make this distinction without a compass, which means that the worldview of the Guugu Yimithirr people is definitely determined by their language.
They sense the cardinal directions because their language obliges them to.
8. Sex and Syntax
“Gender,” writes Deutscher, “provides our second example of how the mother tongue influences thought.”
Once again, it is because in some languages you are obliged to specify the gender of all nouns, even though, most of them, don’t have a natural gender by definition.
This results in some identifiably strange incidents.
For example, the Spanish word for “bridge” is el puente and the German one is die Brücke; you don’t need to know a lot Spanish or German to understand that, as far as the Spanish are concerned, bridges are males and, as far as the Germans are asked, they are females.
Nothing strange so far: it’s a convention, and, since bridges have no natural gender, words just developed that way.
However, when Toshi Konishi asked both German and Spanish speakers to describe a bridge, he realized an interesting pattern: Germans naturally chose primarily feminine properties, and Spanish speakers chose masculine ones.
Because their brains are hardwired to think of bridges in the manner their language tells them to; to Spanish people a bridge can be “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering,” but to Germans it can only be “beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender.”
And it gets even weirder.
As Lena Boroditsky and Lauren Schmidt discovered, if you ask a Spanish person to remember that a bridge is called Claudia, he/she is more likely to forget this than if you say that the bridge’s name is Claudio; and the same holds true for Germans – only it is the other way around with them.
Well, we started this section with it: just reread the first sentence.
9. Russian Blues
As the title of this section suggests, we’re going back to every linguist’s favorite field: the vocabulary of colors.
“In returning to the subject of color,” writes Deutsch here, “this final chapter tries to discharge an old debt, by turning on its head the nineteenth-century question about the relation between language and perception.”
What? What does “turning on its head” mean? Didn’t we reach a conclusion already?
Well, not exactly.
Gladstone and Geiger believed that “differences in the vocabulary of color resulted from preexisting differences in color perception. But could it be that cause and effect have been reversed here? Is it possible that linguistic differences can be the cause of differences in perception?”
In other words, is it possible that we see the colors in the way our language dictates us to see them?
The answer is “yes.”
The experiment is simple: English speakers are asked to choose the “odd one out” from a series of three colored chips across the blue-green spectrum.
Two of them are green, and the third one is greenish blue; however, the two greens are distanced between them on the spectrum much more than the greenish blue in relation to any of them.
Of course, English people exaggerated the distance and always chose the greenish blue.
The same experiment was then conducted in Mexico, with speakers of an Indian language called Tarahumara.
Well, as you would expect, because in Tarahumara green and blue are shades of one color
Now, the Tarahumara speakers did not choose the greenish blue and didn’t exaggerate the distance between chips on different sides of the green-blue border.
The official conclusion?
“The difference between the responses of English and Tarahumara speakers,” writes Deutsch, “demonstrated an influence of language on the perception of color.”
Key Lessons from “Through the Language Glass”
1. Your Language Determines How Many Colors You See
2. The Gender of the Nouns in Your Language Influences How You Think About Their Real-World Counterparts
3. The Guugu Yimithirr People Don’t Know Left from Right
Your Language Determines How Many Colors You See
You’ve probably already heard that women can see more colors than men; this is perhaps true, but it has more to do with our biology than anything else.
However, regardless of whether they are men or women, all people see colors differently; and some of it is due to language.
For example, if you are English, you see two shades of blue where the Russians see two different colors. And experiments have shown that you are more capable of discerning between two very distant shades of green than between green and greenish blue – which is not the for Tarahumara Indians who don’t have a different word for these colors.
The Gender of the Nouns in Your Language Influences How You Think About Their Real-World Counterparts
As you should know full well by now, there’s miles and miles difference between sex and gender, since the latter is socially constructed and the former is a biological spectrum.
Well, as far as language is concerned, gender is so dependent on conventions that it not only exists in a grammatical form, but it also differs from language to language.
For example, bridges are females for Germans and males for Spanish.
The strange part?
Spanish people often describe them with masculine properties (long, towering, sturdy, hard), but Germans with feminine (beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty).
The Guugu Yimithirr People Don’t Know Left from Right
The Guugu Yimithirr language is unusual in one peculiar manner: it doesn’t have words for left, right, up, and down (egocentric directions), but instead uses the cardinal points (north, east, west, and south).
That means, as far as the Guugu Yimithirr people are concerned, you are not reading from left to right, but from east to west – or west to east, depending on whether your nose is pointing to south or north.
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Through the Language Glass QuotesIf Germans do have systematic minds, this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother tongue has exhausted their brains' capacity to cope with any further irregularity. Click To Tweet The simpler the society, the more information it is likely to mark within the word; the more complex the society, the fewer semantic distinctions it is likely to express word-internally. Click To Tweet People find names for things they feel the need to talk about. Click To Tweet The brain of a child learning a language can cope with a mind-boggling amount of linguistic complexity. Click To Tweet Much of a language's complexity is not necessarily for effective communication. Click To Tweet
For all intents and purposes, Through the Language Glass may be the best language-relativity book you can find on the market; we, for one, haven’t read a better one (and we’re kind of interested in the subject).
Unsurprisingly, when it was first published, Through the Language Glass was voted one of the best books of the year by both the Economist and Financial Times, in addition to being a New York Times Editor’s Choice.If you ask us, more than deserved.