Deutscher, Through the Language Glass

Deutscher, Guy. 2010. Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Guy Deutscher’s new book has attracted a great deal of attention among linguistic anthropologists, not least because anthropology is virtually made invisible throughout. It has a few very serious flaws; nonetheless, it is nonetheless the best presentation of a wide range of specialist literature on linguistic relativity for laypeople and introductory students. It should be read widely and critically.

Deutscher begins with four chapters on a particular theme in linguistic relativity, colour terminology, and ends with a fifth chapter on that subject. His approach is historical – many linguists and anthropologists, even ones who know this field well, will find surprising historical tidbits in his narrative. Deutscher takes us from the classical speculations of Gladstone (yes, the same one) through the seminal work of Berlin and Kay, through modern refinements and interpretations. It is not quite an alternate history, but one that notes rightly that interest in the language-cognition interface with respect to colour is a longstanding part of the history of our disciplines, not one emergent from the cognitive sciences in the past half-century. Deutscher’s correct answer is that both perceptual and cognitive constraints are at play – biology does not determine how we categorize the colour spectrum, but neither are we completely free to divide it however we wish. This is not an especially innovative answer, but it is a well-presented one that will appeal to people who are new to this subject.

Chapter 5, ‘Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd’ is both the weakest chapter and the most out-of-place. Deutscher sets up a straw man in claiming that “For decades, linguists have elevated the hollow slogan that ‘all languages are equally complex’ to a fundamental tenet of their discipline, zealously suppressing as heresy any suggestion that the complexity of any areas of grammar could reflect aspects of society” (125). Deutscher tries to resuscitate the idea of different levels of linguistic complexity by rephrasing the question in terms of complexity within specific domains of language. But we’ve known for a very long time that different languages have different numbers of phonemes, or that there are correlations between social complexity and domains like colour terms and number words (a topic sadly neglected in the book), and Deutscher is wrong to imagine an inquisition against the subject. Worse, Deutscher links these ideas to statements such as, “If you are a member of an isolated tribe that numbers a few dozen people, you hardly ever come across any strangers, and if you do you will probably spear them or they will spear you before you get a chance to chat” (115). In so doing he will doubtless reinforce the pervasive myths of primitivity: that small-scale societies are more isolated, more xenophobic, and more violent than larger-scale ones. It is very interesting that smaller-scale societies have smaller colour lexicons than larger ones, but this doesn’t provide an answer. For this reason alone I suspect that I will not give this book to introductory students. Moreover, it is poorly linked to the general theme of the book – it neither advances any particular claim between the relation between language and cognition nor supports the other chapters’ claims. The whole chapter would have been better omitted.

In Part II, ‘The Language Lens’, Deutscher begins by lambasting Benjamin Whorf’s ‘language prison’ model of linguistic relativity in favour of the model proposed by Franz Boas and Roman Jakobson, which emphasized what languages require their speakers to say, rather than the Whorfian question of what they allow or prohibit their speakers from saying. The fact that some languages require one to specify the gender of inanimate objects, or that others require you to note evidentiality when making factual statements (how you know what you know), develops habits of thought that, over time, lead individuals to favour particular modes of cognition over others. He supports this through two newer themes of research – the effects of spatial language on the cognition of the relationships between physical objects, and the role of gender categories in affecting the semantic connotations of inanimate objects. These are well-known fields among specialists, but are presented here in an engaging fashion, allowing novices to experience radically different modes of spatial cognition through the eyes of Guugu Yimithirr speakers of Australia, for instance.

Perhaps the most striking absence for linguistic anthropologists is the complete absence of discussion of a number of central figures in the field, from the early work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl to modern scholars such as John Lucy, Eve Danziger or Anna Wierzbicka, who are neither mentioned nor cited. Through the Language Glass is not, and is apparently not intended as, a full recounting of the history of linguistic relativity concepts, which is fine except insofar as it sometimes claims to be one. Because Deutscher is not, and has no plans to be, a scholar doing original research in this field, he is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an interloper whose contribution is to summarize the work of others without consulting them. While this is not a mortal sin, one can question his judgement in failing to work with the body of scholars whose work he intends to present to a general audience.

Despite these failings, Through the Language Glass is an engaging presentation of an important theme in linguistics and anthropology. With the exception of one chapter I found it very enjoyable to read and a good presentation of important past and present research, and in particular on the field of colour studies I learned much of the history of the field that I had not previously known. It would be highly suitable for use in undergraduate courses with the caveat that it should be discussed critically.


Does Twitter have it out for the English language?

Does Twitter have it out for the English language?
Shawna Lemanski

Creative Commons License
Does Twitter have it out for the English language? by Shawna Lemanski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Just as fashion trends come and go, the ways in which we communicate change throughout time. The transition from leg warmers and mullets to jeans and faux-hawks might spring to mind easier than the transition from “unbeknownst to me” to “I dunno” or “idk”, but both our fashion styles and our forms of language inevitably change. Just as you still have the ability to don a mullet, you can still say things like “how art thou feeling?” However, you’d probably receive some strange looks from those who have adapted to the fads of the 21st century. So, why then, in the age of technology, are people upset by the overwhelming trend of youngsters to use abbreviations or seemingly made-up phrases in methods of communication such as text messaging and Twitter? Not entirely surprising, an increasing number of people believe that Twitter has set out to kill the English language, or at least just leave it with a memorable battle wound.

Created in 2006, Twitter aims to connect internet users by allowing them to “tweet” their thoughts as well as read what’s on the minds of their friends and even celebrities. The Twitter website itself boasts that it is “The best way to discover what’s new in your world” (Twitter). So what issues could anyone possibly have with this? Well, the most common problems people seem to have with Twitter are both the tainting of perfectly fine English words by “tweeters” and the lack of correct grammar and coherent sentence structure used in “tweets”. Thus, challengers of Twitter first aim to take down Twitter’s “peculiar lingo” (Owen Thomas). In an article appropriately named “Twitter’s Evil Plot to Destroy the English Language”, the “lingo of Twitter” (placing ‘tw’ at the beginning of a word in an effort to make it twitterified) is called out as being “ahistorically vile” (examples given include “twirting” and “tweeps”) (Owen Thomas). One concerned commenter calls this criticism into question: “None of these words actually get used” (Nick Douglas). So while it is probable that most discussions on the prospective dangers of Twitter via its usage and/or possible side effects are indeed exaggerated, it is still worth further investigation.

Since the language of Twitter is full of abbreviations and words that would easily be deemed misspelled according to any English dictionary, some will even go so far as to say that Twitter may be depriving its users of their full literacy potential. In an online article entitled “Is Twitter Ruining Literacy?” this alarming question on the usage of Twitter is posed: “…will the average graduate be equipped with a complete understanding of the English language? Will this lack of interest in writing in complete sentences signal a lack of interest in literacy as a whole?” (Jeff Rivera). Not only are people worried that Twitter is severely harming the English language, they are also concerned that it is having a negative effect on its users. The only things opponents of Twitter see in tweets full of shortened expressions and foreign-looking words are laziness and incompetence.

While some speculate if tweeters are as fully literate as their non-tweeting friends, others retain a similar concern: that the twitter generation soon won’t be able to differentiate their twitter talk from the standardized English used in school and the workplace. In the online article “Is Twitter Helping Millennials Destroy the English Language?” Rachael Siefert says “I am concerned that the informal texting language is becoming the English language for Millennials” (Siefert). This thought process is shared by many and it shows that people are genuinely concerned about this possibility (ironically, to the right of the article’s title is a “tweet” button that would allow any reader to quickly and conveniently tweet their thoughts about this article).

Conforming to the trend, yet another article speaks of the destructive effects Twitter is having on both the English language and its users. In the article entitled “Is Twitter Destroying the English Language?”, Mike Wudhapitak speaks on the aforementioned possibility of the “laziness” and “incompetence” of Twitter users: “Whether it’s due to sloth or inability, the reality is that the generations that are using the internet most heavily for communication are seeing their grammatical and linguistic levels flounder” (Mike Wudhapitak). This article reminds us that in their arguments against Twitter, most people are actually talking about the language used in internet communication and technological devices of this era as a whole. Perhaps their uneasiness is due to their unfamiliarity with such devices, or even the discomforting feeling that often comes along with any change.

In dealing with those who choose to use internet slang, the article claims that the issue is either due to “sloth or inability” (Mike Wudhapitak). I would argue that it is more so due to choice. The choice to use a different dialect of English while speaking to friends over the internet and via text than one would use while writing a scholarly paper or filling out a resume. In the article “It’s Not Language Error”, Traci Gardner says “The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works” (Traci Gardner).

Many opponents of internet jargon do not understand, and sometimes don’t even acknowledge, that language is inevitably transforming right before our very eyes. It is a constant process that is necessary for every language. As pointed out in the article “The Internet is Not Harming the English Language”, “Any language is a living thing, which means it has to adapt with the times in order to survive” (How to Improve Spoken English). Before computers were invented and extensively used, there was no need for an English word for such a device. As culture and technology changed, however, the English language did as well, and it created the word (in its modern meaning) in order to adapt. This same principle applies to English grammar. If it is more convenient to use abbreviations and shortened words in communication devices such as text messaging and Twitter, than that will become the preferred way of speaking whilst using such devices. The point of language is to communicate and therefore the most convenient and effective way to achieve this goal is usually the most desired.

While it is clearly true that the technology of our time has had (and will have) an influence on our language, it is nothing new. In the article “Twittergraphy”, Ben Schott compares the Twitter craze with that of the “late 19th century telegraphy boom” (Ben Schott). He explains that “concerns for economy, as well as a desire for secrecy, fueled a boom in telegraphic code books that reduced both common and complex phrases into single words” (Ben Schott). This new technological device that allowed long distance communication ultimately had an influence on the language of its users. Messages that contained shorter, “made-up” words and phrases combined with choppy grammar derived from the fact that it was substantially less costly to send a message with fewer words. This was just a more convenient variation of the standardized English of the time. It didn’t mean that the users of the telegraph suddenly became less literate in Standard English, it just meant that they were now literate in a new dialect of English, brought about by a change in technology. One comment on the above-mentioned article attempts to defend Twitter:

Twitter is no more detrimental to literacy than the telegrams of the past were. I noticed while researching Hemingway, and reading through his old telegrams, that the grammar was terrible. He also went for economy of words to save money. Obviously, this had no impact on his story writing. (Erika Robuck)

This same concept can be applied to Twitter. As new tweeters quickly learn, Twitter restricts posted thoughts to 140 characters. This is similar to the 160 character limit established by text messaging. So, dictated by cost, users of Short Message Service (SMS/text messaging) were forced to come up with creative ways to twist the English language so that they could relay their thoughts in fewer words. When internet users first stumbled upon Twitter, most were already versed in text-speak and so they probably weren’t completely thrown off by the fact that their thoughts needed to be kept to a ‘minimum’, so to speak. In order to relay a short, but still coherent message to their followers, tweeters turned to the already popular dialect of text messaging and the internet, which consists of shortened phrases and abbreviations such as “LOL” for “laugh(ing) out loud” and “TTYL” for “talk to you later”.

For the most part, adversaries of Twitter will acknowledge that what tweeters are using is an informal dialect of English. Nonetheless, many of them will imply that it is improper and incorrect. Their judgments, however, are based upon an overall agreement by English speakers as to what constitutes the “right” dialect of the language—the “standard” one. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Standard English is defined as:

The English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood. (Merriam-Webster)

This definition points out several interesting things. First, it reiterates the fact that the “standard” version involves specific grammar and spelling rules and that the dialects classified as substandard would be deemed so because of a deviation from these expectations. It also explains that the “standard” version of the language is the chosen dialect of the majority of its speakers. It states that it is recognized as being “acceptable” (implying that other versions are not so acceptable). Finally, it entails that those who are “educated” use Standard English, even in informal speech. The author of the article “Is Twitter Destroying the English Language?” poses this question: “Is texting, Twitter, and the internet at large bringing about the downfall of linguistic excellence? Or is it just the next step in the work-in-progress that is the English language?” (Mike Wudhapitak). To say that the internet is somehow causing “the downfall of linguistic excellence” implies that we have reached some point in which the English language has improved from what it used to be. Just as we cannot legitimately decipher who is more intelligent by who uses Standard English more, it is impossible to objectively choose at which point a dialect is more superior. Obviously we are all biased in that we generally favor the version of a language we grow up with, but to say that one dialect is more advanced than another requires a notion of arrogance and subjective superiority.

Additionally, language is not so much progressing as it is transforming. It changes because it has to adapt, not because it is somehow obtaining better quality. One person’s response to this article states: “Grammar is just a convention and evolves as the people who use it adapt to the new environment and context. Otherwise there would be no Portuguese, French, Spanish and not even Catalan, and they all evolved from Latin” (David Nudelman). Grammar has certainly not retained the same since its beginning and this is not because it is striving to get better, it’s because it’s striving the keep up with the changing times. There is no innate, perfect set of language rules, only rules that people create to allow themselves to sufficiently express themselves in a way in which others will understand them.

By taking a trip across the United States, one would have a chance to hear the variations in the many different dialects spoken. Even though they would all be speaking English, there would undoubtedly be vast disparities in their spoken language. Standardization responds to this variability by attempting to establish a norm. It is then expected that speakers of the language will abide by the set of rules created by this standard. Unfortunately, those who choose to occasionally switch over to a more casual dialect in spoken form or in writing may suffer from fallacious judgments that they are somehow less educated or intelligent than those who consistently speak and write in the standard form.

This is exactly what has happened in the case of today’s internet savvy teens and young adults. They are being judged as less literate, less intelligent, and essentially less versed in Standard English as compared to their parent’s generation. One comment on the article “Is Twitter Destroying the English Language” reads: “Isn’t this more a failure of an educational system allowing uneducated students out of high school and in to college than an indicator of the degradation of English? “ (William Acree) So is it really the use of Twitter that is destroying the Standard English of today’s teens or is it their lack of attendance in English classes? Or is it neither? After all, if the grammar of today’s Standard English is not being taught to the extent at which is once was, how are today’s teens expected to know it? It is impossible to learn something if it is not adequately exposed to you. Furthermore, it has been established that “standard” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”, so what’s the concern behind this?

Of course, what is considered standard today was not standard a few hundred years ago and will probably not be standard another few hundred years into the future. So why do people challenge devices that show us that our beloved language is changing? Why not just surrender and let it fall victim to terrifying things akin to Twitter? It is precisely because, like cultural rituals and traditions, people hold language close to their hearts. More specifically, they value the dialect they grow up learning, speaking, and writing. Just as it’s hard for someone to learn a new language or alter their dialect, it’s difficult and uncomfortable to see the grammar and spelling of a language you once knew change. It’s no coincidence that the resistance to internet slang is coming mostly from a generation that did not grow up using the internet and cell phones as their primary forms of communication.

Just as people question the fashion trends of younger generations, they question the colloquial form of language to which such generations become accustomed to. This may be due to the fact that changing, in general, requires work—an adjustment has to be made. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that language has cultural significance. People tie their language to certain aspects of their culture; whether it’s to the technology of the time period or to the existing slang that relates back to certain cultural practices and beliefs. Language is a way in which we can express our culture. Therefore, it is understandable that people would be upset by their language changing so dramatically because they may feel like they cannot accurately express themselves, or their culture, any longer.

Many would call Shakespeare the greatest writer of the English language. The language Shakespeare wrote in, however, is far different from the version of English spoken today. So does that mean, then, that the Standard English of the new millennium is worse than that of Shakespeare’s time? Would Shakespeare be appalled at our adaptation of the language he knew so well? Probably not any more shocked than he would be of our current fashion trends and technological devices. The fact of the matter is that throughout time, culture changes and nothing is excluded from this transformation—not even language. The question of whether the language of Shakespeare’s time was any more beautiful than our language of today, or even the language of the internet, is completely subjective. Just as culture does not necessarily make progression as it changes, language doesn’t either. The change is inevitable and whether it is said to be good or bad could easily depend on what century the person making the judgment is from. In fact, if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d probably take a break from tweeting to “LOL” at this dispute.

Works Cited

Acree, William. “Re: Is Twitter Destroying the English Language?” Web log comment. Toolbox. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <>.
Douglas, Nick. “Re: Twitter’s Evil Plot to Destroy the English Language.” Web log comment. Gawker. 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. <>.
Gardner, Traci. “It’s Not Language Error.” NCTE Inbox Blog. 28 Aug. 2007. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <>.
How to Improve Spoken English, English Speaker. “The Internet Is Not Harming the English Langugage |” How to Improve Spoken English. 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010. <>.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Standard English – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. < english>.
Nudelman, David. “Re: Is Twitter Destroying the English Language?” Web log comment. Toolbox. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <>.
Rivera, Jeff. “Is Twitter Ruining Literacy? – GalleyCat.” Jobs, Classes, Community and News for Media Professionals. 14 Oct. 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <>.
Robuck, Erika. “Re: Is Twitter Ruining Literacy?” Web log comment. Galleycat. Oct. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <>.
Schott, Ben. “Twittergraphy.” The New York Times. 2 Aug. 2009. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. <>.
Siefert, Rachael. “Is Twitter Helping Millennials Destroy the English Language? « Vanguard Communications InSites | Blogging for Social Change.” Vanguard Communications. 13 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <>.
Thomas, Owen. “Twitter’s Evil Plot to Destroy the English Language.” Gawker — Gossip from Manhattan and the Beltway to Hollywood and the Valley. 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <>.
Twitter. Twitter. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. <>.
Wudhapitak, Mike. “Is Twitter Destroying the English Language?” IT Communities – Share Knowledge at Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <>.

Student publications ahoy!

Over the next couple of weeks, you should expect to see here a number of student papers from my undergraduate Language and Culture course at Wayne State University. You’ll be able to identify these from the header, from the tag ‘Guest Post’, and the Creative Commons license attached to each. These guest posts aren’t mine, although obviously I think they are extremely strong and endorse them. These represent the very best student work that is coming out of my courses, of which I am proud and, of course, of which the authors should be very proud.

AAA bound

From tomorrow morning until Sunday afternoon I will be at the American Anthropological Association meetings in New Orleans. Although my own paper, “Re-stimulating the anthropology of writing systems” has the misfortune of having been placed on Sunday morning at 8:00am (wheeeee!), by which time a lot of people will already be gone, I’ll be around a lot of places, including the business meetings for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, and my department’s Friday 5pm reception at the (numerically-interesting) 5 Fifty 5 Cafe. If you’re going, and are reading this, and would like to meet up, feel free to comment here or track me down.

Society for Anthropological Sciences call for papers

Forwarding this CFP along, from the Society for Anthropological Sciences. This is a great small-to-medium conference that I attend yearly, focusing on empirical research and social science in anthropology, linguistics, and cognitive science. I always find an enormous variety of really neat papers. Hope to see you in Charleston!

This is a call for submission of abstracts for presentations and for organized symposia at the 2011 meetings of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. Please give thought to attending and participating in the meetings. As was the case last year, SASci will be meeting jointly with the Society for Cross Cultural Research (SCCR) and the American Anthropological Association Child Interest Group (AAACIG).

Location/Hotel: Charleston, SC/Francis Marion Hotel (; rates are $139/night
Dates: February 16-19, 2011

Abstracts (100-200 words) are due November 30, 2010.
Decisions on acceptance of abstracts will be by December 15, 2010.

Abstracts should be sent to B. G. Blount ( or The abstracts will be reviewed by the Program Committee (B. Blount; Carlos Garcia-Quijano; and Victor de Munck).

Registration: Members, $115; Non-members, $135; Retirees, $70; Students from SC not presenting papers, $40
Banquet: $50.

Registration and banquet fees can be paid through PayPal to SASci or by check to Seamus Decker, Treasurer, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA (email contact:

Michigan left

Today in my undergrad course, as preparation for their Lexiculture papers as well as introducing them to a module on North American English dialects, I decided to take them through the process of researching a phrase known to all of them, but almost certainly not to most of you: “Michigan left”. This is the phenomenon, nearly unique to Michigan, where left turns are prohibited at an intersections where there is a median, but instead, you turn right, shift left across one or more lanes, and then several hundred feet later, you do a U-turn in a special U-turn lane for the purpose. It’s also known as a median u-turn crossover, although no one ever calls it that.

Every single student in my class had heard this term. I learned what it was very shortly after arriving here, because these turns are ubiquitous in metro Detroit. And yet there is no entry for Michigan left in the Oxford English Dictionary, and also none in the Dictionary of American Regional English. This, as I told my students, is interesting.

I asked them to speculate when it might have originated, and they immediately developed two very reasonable hypotheses: a) that it originated with the early days of the automobile, which is iconically associated with Michigan, of course; b) that it was associated with the period of massive expansion of roadways in the 1960s, particularly as Detroit’s white population left for the suburbs. Before looking into it today, I would have bet on the second hypothesis, and indeed, very shortly, we discovered a very useful page, Michigan Highways, confirming that this road setup was first initiated in 1960.

The only problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for the phrase Michigan left, or any variation of it, before 1993, at which time it turns up in a handful of technical reports written by transportation nerds, e.g.:

“The scene showed traveling on Ecorse Road 1/2 mile to Hannan Road and turning north for 2 mi where it turned onto Michigan Ave (US-12), which required a Michigan left turn. (A Michigan left turn is a right turn followed by a U-turn, to make a left.)” (Green, P., et al. 1993. Examination of a videotape-based method to evaluate the usability of route guidance and traffic information systems. University of Michigan, Transportation Research Institute, p. 7)

As I noted to the students, the fact that a Michigan-based technical report written for road experts felt it necessary to define the term suggests that we are not far off the actual date of origin. But the fact that they used the term ‘Michigan left’ at all, as opposed to a technical term like ‘median u-turn crossover’, suggests that it must have had some currency at that time. So my guess would be 1985-1990 as a reasonable point of origin.

It was very surprising for them (and me!) to think that the phrase originated within most of their lifetimes, because it’s just so ubiquitous in Michigan English today. But there’s a lot of evidence for this late date of origin: instances of the phrase pick up rapidly in the 1990s, but almost entirely in Michigan-based publications and newspapers, and almost all defining the term immediately after using it. There were a few attested instances in North Carolina, where apparently someone decided to emulate the Michigan traffic system, and almost none anywhere else. This confirms that, unlike toponymic phrases coined by outsiders to mark the unusual nature of other people, Michigan left was coined by insiders in recognition of a unique characteristic of the state.

It’s commonly the case that people think that words and expressions are much more recent than they are – this is the recency illusion, a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky. But with Michigan left, we have the opposite: we have a recent phrase which is believed by its users to be older than it actually is; Zwicky calls this the Antiquity Illusion. In this case, I suspect the illusion is so strong because the phenomenon being described – being forced to turn right and then do a U-turn – is older than the word itself. People of virtually any age can remember doing the deed, and so they naturally associate it with the now-existing word. I and the students did searches for a variety of other phrases (Michigan U-turn, Michigan turnaround) without any luck, suggesting that in fact, prior to the 1980s or even the early 1990s, there simply was no common phrase for the Michigan left.

All of which raises a final, and possibly unanswerable question: how and why, after a quarter century of existence, did this concept finally acquire a name?