Through The Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

It’s subtitled “Why the world looks different in other languages” which (a) makes for a lot of words on the cover and (b) kind of prejudges the contents.

Stephen Fry, who is currently on our TVs with “Planet Word” also adds some writing to the front cover, but in episode 1 of his programme, he summed up the entire book in one sentence: Italians, whose word for bridge is feminine, describe photos of bridges using feminine traits such as “beautiful” or “elegant”, while Germans, whose word for bridge is masculine, describe the same photos using words like “strong”.

So there we have it. Actually, that’s not entirely it, or it would be a complete waste of time. This is just about the only thing that can be concluded, though. The first half of the book is about different words for colour and why some languages have more of them than others. It turns out it’s mostly practice. But the whole subject is littered with examples from history of casual racism and intellectually lazy prejudice. It all got rather distasteful. Which means it’s somewhere that wise people tread very carefully. Hence the hedgy conclusion above being the only thing Deutscher claims is almost certainly definitely true, despite the cover claiming that our language controls the way we see the world.

(Incidentally, I’ll interject a complaint here: in several places, he refers to an insert showing different colours involved in certain experiments. This is not in the paperback version of the book. In most cases it’s not critical to the understanding of the experiment – I can imagine a bluey-green and a greeny-blue well enough. But there was one that just didn’t make any sense. Since half the book is about colours, it seems a bit rude to leave it out.)

The second half of the book was a bit more interesting – it actually dealt more with how different languages do change the way we think. But it’s all anecdotal. Which is fine, actually. I’d have loved a few more anecdotes, even if they were largely unsubstantiated. There are the tribes of aboriginal Australians who navigate exclusively by compass bearing, even to describe where an ant is relative to your foot, meaning that at all times, they know exactly where north is. It’s crazy stuff. Only none of them really do it any more, because they spend too much time speaking English. Oh well.

There’s some really good stuff in here, but the presentation is a bit dry and it feels like there’s a lot of book for not much information.

See also: Fry’s Planet Word – on telly now, but sure to be out in codex form in time for Christmas.

Shades of Grey – it’s about colour, right?


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