Review: Through the Language Glass

I’m a language geek and borrowed this 2010 book by Guy Deutscher from a friend.

The book is interesting but poorly edited too long. Deutscher takes too much room for his own work, i.e., over 100 pages on words to describe color (more below) but only 20 pages on the language of gender. 

This review will therefore record my summary takeaways, for those readers who have better things to do with their time 😉

  1. All languages use different means to convey ideas at what turns out to be the same pace. Thus, they may differ in verb endings or placement, noun complexity, etc., but they more or less work with the rate at which we can hear and understand speech. Languages are not equally complex, but they can convey the same information.
  2. Languages spoken by small groups can be very complex (e.g., a single word for “your brother-in-law’s father”) as a reflection of complex social relations. In “mass languages,” words and structures are simpler, to help strangers construct shared perspectives. 
  3. A single word might be translated into one of several words in another language that does not use relation to convey meaning. Some languages have groups of words to explore nuances (the famous example of eskimos and snow). 
  4. The most important colors are black, white and red. Other colors are added to our vocabulary (it seems) as our need to discriminate among them. The sky has always been blue, but the color blue has only come into use as we began to make and trade blue objects.
  5. After 150 years of debate over the naming of colors, it turns out that cultures with a limited range of colors are not “color blind” as much as “color indifferent.” They can tell the differences between unnamed colors but don’t bother to differentiate in everyday life. This phenomena is the opposite of eskimo-snow vocabulary (or academic jargon defining obscure ideas), but similar to the practice of counting “1, 2, many” in some cultures.
  6. Perhaps the easiest way to show that limited vocabulary does not indicate limited thinking is when someone switches from one language “lacking X” to another where they say “X”. Unspoken doesn’t mean unknown.
  7. Languages gain and lose words all the time. If gains exceed losses, then the vocabulary is growing. If the word falls out of use, then it disappears forever. More people speaking the language can reduce word count as they settle on more basic words that more people can understand.
  8. Academics have misinterpreted languages for centuries. Languages (and cultures) have been maligned by outsiders imposing a “Latin grammar structure” on the local language, or mistaking someone’s poor use of their non-native tongue for stupidity in their native tongue. German or French philosophy cannot be traced to their native grammars, nor can they be superior due to their expression in a “perfect” language (a common claim).
  9. “Languages differ in what they must convey not in what they may convey.” We can say “Dr. Jones” without knowing if the doctor is male or female, but we must know gender if we want to use “Mister” or “Miss.”
  10.  The original use of “gender” referred to “type,” e.g., humans, big things, small things, collectives or liquids. Gender became associated with male and female because European languages (and the scholars who speak them) were not aware of how other cultures grouped words.
  11. That said, male or female words can influence how one thinks of an object, e.g., the French associate a fork (la fourchette) with feminine qualities while Spaniards use masculine words when thinking of el tenedor.
  12. Some languages (especially among Aboriginals in Australia) use cardinal coordinates (N, S, E, W) to refer to objects (“my western hand”) whereas most of us use egocentric coordinates (“my left hand”). Both systems work, but mixed conversations can be confusing.

My one-handed conclusion is that all languages are useful, but some are harder to learn than others, often due to their distance from one’s mother tongue. I give this book three stars.

 

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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