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Through the Language Glass

How Words Colour Your World

by Guy Deutscher

Shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, 2011

 An Economist Best Book of 2010

 Editor’s Choice, New York Times

A Spectator Best Book of 2010

A Financial Times Best Book of 2010 

 A Library Journal Best Book of 2010

Winner of 'Best Science Book, 2010' prize (Vienna)

Translations have appeared (or are being prepared) in: Arabic, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (complex), Croatian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Turkish

Praise

A marvellous and surprising book which left me breathless and dizzy with delight. 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. Plus I learned the word plaidoyer which I shall do my utmost to use every day... Stephen Fry

Our most basic assumptions are called into question in this rich and provocative look at how language affects the way we see the world... 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... Through the Language Glass is full of just such blue-sky thinking. It's a remarkably rich, provocative and intelligent work of pop science. Sam Leith, The Sunday Times

A book so robustly researched and wonderfully told that it is hard to put down. Christine Keanneally, New Scientist

Brilliant account of linguistic research. This inspiring amalgam of cultural history and science is beautifully written. Clive Cookson, Financial Times

a thrilling and challenging ride."—Christopher Schoppa, The Washington Post

Fascinating Study of the way every langauge divides the world into its own unique jigsaw. Beautifully argued. William Leith, Evening Standard

“Fascinating reading.… Deutscher does not merely weave little-known facts into an absorbing story. He also takes account of the vast changes in our perceptions of other races and cultures over the past two centuries.” Derek Bickerton, The New York Times Book Review
 
“An informative, pleasurable read… A gifted writer, Deutscher picks his way nimbly past overblown arguments to a sensible compromise.” Amanda Katz, The Boston Globe

Absolutely cracking book on linguistics and whether it can reveal anything about human perception. One of the reasons I liked this book so much is that Deutscher has such a wonderful way of getting his message across while remaining highly approachable. I'm reminded of what the great Richard Feynman did for physics - and there can be no greater accolade. You don't have to be in the least interested in linguistics per se to enjoy this book. It's a joy to read. Highly recommended. Popular Science

A work of breathless popular science... fascinating scientific journey. Prospect Magazine 


From the Introduction

"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 judgement on what different languages are good for. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, and master of several European 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 only needs to compare the mellow sounds of Portuguese with the harshness of Spanish to understand the quintessential difference between these two neighbouring cultures. The grammar of some languages is simply not logical enough to express complex ideas. German, on the other hand, is an ideal vehicle for formulating the most precise philosophical profundities, as it is a particularly orderly language, which is why the Germans have such an orderly mind. (But can one not hear the goose-step in its gauche humorless sounds?) Some languages don’t even have a future tense, so their speakers naturally have no grasp of the future. The Babylonians would have been hard pressed to understand Crime and Punishment, because their language used one and the same word to describe both of these concepts. The craggy fjords are audible in the precipitous intonation of Norwegian, and you can hear the dark l’s of Russian in Tchaikovsky’s lugubrious tunes. French is not only a Romance language, but the language of romance, par excellence. English is an adaptable, even promiscuous language, and Italian – ah, Italian!

     


  


Many a dinner-table conversation is embellished by such vignettes, for few subjects lend themselves more readily to disquisition than the character of different languages and their speakers. And yet, should these lofty observations be carried away from the conviviality of the dining-room to the chill of the study, they would quickly collapse like a soufflé of airy anecdote – at best amusing and meaningless, at worst bigoted and absurd. Most foreigners cannot hear the difference between rugged Norwegian and the endless plains of Swedish. The industrious protestant Danes have dropped more consonants onto their icy windswept soil than any indolent tropical tribe. And if Germans do have a systematic mind, this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother-tongue has exhausted their brain’s capacity to cope with any further irregularity. English speakers can hold lengthy conversations about forthcoming events wholly in the present tense (I’m flying to Vancouver next week…) without any detectable loosening in their grip on the concepts of futurity. 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 toolkit from Latin, which in turn lifted it wholesale from Greek. If speakers of any tribal tongue were so minded, they could easily do the same today, and it would be eminently possible to deliberate in Zulu about the respective merits of empiricism and rationalism, or hold forth about existentialist phenomenology in West-Greenlandic.

.... Once one has sifted out the unfounded and the uninformed, the farcical and the fantastic, is there anything sensible left to say about the relation between language, culture and thought? Does language reflect the culture of a society in any profound sense, beyond such trivia as the number of words it has for snow or for shearing camels? And even more contentiously, can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts and perceptions?

For the majority of serious scholars today, the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no’. The dominant view among linguists today is that language is primarily an instinct, in other words, that the fundaments of language are coded in our genes and are the same across the human race. Noam Chomsky has famously argued that a Martian scientist would conclude that all earthlings speak dialects of the same language. Deep down, so runs the theory, all languages share the same Universal Grammar, the same underlying concepts, the same degree of systemic complexity. The only important aspects of language, therefore, or at least the only ones worth investigating, are those that reveal language as an expression of innate human nature. Finally, there is nowadays a broad consensus that if our mother-tongue influences the way we think at all, any such influence is negligible, even trivial – and that fundamentally we all think in the same way.

In the pages to follow, however, I will try to convince you, probably against your initial intuition, and certainly against the fashionable academic view of today, that the answer to the questions above is – yes. In this plaidoyer for culture, I will argue that cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research now provides solid evidence that our mother-tongue can affect the way we think and perceive the world. But just before you relegate this book to the crack-pot shelf, next to last year’s fad-diet recipes and the How to Bond with your Goldfish manual, I give you my solemn pledge that we will not indulge in groundless twaddle of any kind. We shall not soar to such lofty questions as which languages have more ‘esprit’, nor shall we delve into the mysteries of which cultures are more ‘profound’. The problems that will occupy us in this book are of a very different kind.

In fact, the areas of culture we shall be concerned with belong to the most down-to-earth level of everyday life, and the aspects of language we shall encounter are on the most down-to-earth level of everyday speech. For it turns out that the most significant connections between language, culture and thought are to be found where they are least expected, in those places where healthy common sense would suggest that all cultures and all languages should be exactly the same...


 







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