August 31 2010
A nation’s language, or so we are often told, reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought. Some languages don’t have a future tense, so naturally their speakers have no grasp of the future. The Babylonians would have been hard-pressed to understand Crime and Punishment because their language used the same word to describe both these concepts. German is a model of logical organization, which is why the Germans have such orderly minds; English is an adaptable, even promiscuous tongue; and Italian – ah, Italian!
The simplistic and occasionally bigoted nature of such cocktail-party chatter has largely discredited the notion of any real connection between language and culture, between our mother tongue and power ways of thought. Linguistics has long taught that any cultural differences among languages are only superficial, and there is a widespread view that we all fundamentally think in the same way regardless of our mother tongue. But now, acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the subject. Can different languages lead their speakers to different ideas? Is our native language a lens through which we perceive the world? Could our experience of a Chagall painting depend on whether the language we speak has a word for “blue”?
Challenging today’s fashionable consensus, Deutscher argues that the answer to all these questions is – yes. Taking us from Homer to Darwin, from the corridors of Yale to the rivers of the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water – a “she” – becomes a “he” once you put a teabag into her, he demonstrates that language does reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial. Audacious, delightful, and field-changing, Through the Language Glass illuminates the most fascinating and controversial aspects of language, culture, and the human mind.
Guy Deutscher is the author of The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. Formerly a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and of the Department of Ancient near Eastern Languages in the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures in the University of Manchester. He lives in Oxford with his wife and two daughters.