How much time do you spend thinking about how language affects your life? Not much, I’ll wager. Gary Deutscher, on the other hand, has a near-obsessive interest in such things, and you’ll be surprised to learn just how often and in what ways your native tongue shapes your worldview.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you already know that culture affects the evolution of syntax and grammar, not to mention the actual words. In Through the Language Glass, Gary Deutscher argues that not only are cultural differences reflected in language, but also that “our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.”
One of the most striking of many examples he presents is the Japanese solution to a language conundrum involving traffic lights. Originally bearing the traditional re (aka)-yellow (kiro)-green (ao) light pattern, trouble developed over the years as the term ‘ao,’ which originally encompassed both green and blue, gradually eased toward a reference to only shades of blue.
“Rather than alter the name to fit reality, the Japanese government decreed in 1973 that reality should be altered to fit the name…. The solution was to make the ‘ao’ light as bluish as possible while still being officially green.”
Deutscher devotes the beginning of his journey to an exploration of ancient culture and languages, dwelling upon the peculiar descriptives found in Homer’s works (comparing the color of the sea and of sheep to purple flowers, for example). From there he circles ‘round other oddities, such as the application of gender to inanimate objects in some languages and the location identifiers in others.
At the heart of Deutscher’s investigation is the question of linguistic power over cultural and personal identity. Readers of Ayn Rand’s Anthem will recall that her fictional characters had no word for I and therefore could not conceive of the individual personality. While Deutscher ultimately disagrees that language holds that much power over us, he does concede certain limits: “…when I say that a language does not prevent its speakers from understanding any concepts, I do not mean that one can talk about any subject in any language in its current state.” Imagine offering the following message to the average person in 1981: btw I unfriended u lol.
Deutscher is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at University of Manchester, and the author of a previous book that explores The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. He clearly adores research and enthusiastically probes previous theories, sifting through flawed reasoning with a fine sieve to extract the theories he proposes in Through the Language Glass. It’s hard to believe that such a narrow niche could be presented in a manner that ordinary readers can follow and enjoy, but Deutscher is a dry wit, a rollicking raconteur, and a scholarly showman.