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.

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