Book Review: Through The Language Glass

Through The Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher

This book rather thoughtfully engages a question that is in debate in linguistics and one that I have a deep personal interest in. The question of why the world looks different in various languages has long been of interest to me. This is not only because questions of communication and linguistics are generally fascinating to me (although they certainly are), but because my experience with different languages has shaped the sort of questions about which languages are better for which purposes, and the way I have wondered about how how it is that the use of different languages shapes our thinking for better or worse. The author’s opinion on the matter is certainly one I can get behind, in that the discussion is not so much one that seeks to view some languages as defective and others as not, which some writers can be accused at having done, but rather looks at comparing languages between what must be specified in them and what can be tactfully omitted. That which we have to address and specify in language is something that we acquire a good skill at determining. The more a language requires of us, the more opportunities we have to lie or deal with the awkwardness of honesty when it comes to information that we would rather not disclose.

This book is about 250 pages long and is divided into two parts and nine chapters. The author begins with a prologue that discusses the interaction between language, culture, and thought. After that the author discusses the language mirror (I) through looking at how one names the rainbow and the reason why certain colors tend to be named in certain orders (1) consistently across cultures. There is then a look at the nature of the description of colors and how it is that we learn to see as we do (2). There is a humorous discussion of the history of efforts to determine the color linguistics of other languages (3) that furthers this train of thought before a discussion of the people who say our things before us but who may not get the credit for (4) and the question of what makes languages complex (5) in meaningful ways. The author then looks at the language lens (II) with chapters on the immense worldview differences that exist between languages (6), discussions of where the sun does not in fact shine in the east (7) because of how area is determined, the relationship between sex (gender) and syntax (8), and the Russian way of accounting for blues and what it indicates about the shape of language on perception (9), after which there is an appendix on color, notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, illustration credits, and an index.

The author gives plenty of descriptions at the wide variety of quirks that languages have in terms of what is mandatory to disclose in them and also manages to critique the writings of others (like Steven Pinker), making this a book about linguists and competing ideas for the truth about language and the differences it reflects and leads to. As debates are of interest to me and may possibly be of interest to you, dear reader, as well, there is a lot here that can be appreciated. It is striking that so many people use the same languages to draw on when seeking to make a point, and that this appears to be due both to the nature of available research on the subject as well as the way in which writers seek to dispute what others have said about certain languages and to put a different spin on it. The result is that one can see the varied and complex ways that languages are used and how people think about them, even if the languages involved are extremely rare ones. So the next time you bemoan the fact that you are required to specify something that you would rather not, at least feel glad you are not speaking the obscure South American language that requires you to state the epistemology of how it is that you have come to know what you are stating. I’d be curious to see what philosophy that language had on the nature of evidence and truth.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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