Very early in Through the Language Glass—page seven to be exact—Guy Deutscher asserts that, “In this plaidoyer for culture, I will argue that cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.” Before turning to more substantive details about this book, “plaidoyer” is derived from French, and refers to an address, or plea, or argument made, especially by an advocate in court. Deutscher is true to his word, and launches into a detailed treatise beginning with a prologue titled, “Language, Culture, and Thought” where he points out that “the way you understand ‘culture’ depends on which culture you come from.” He then provides quotes for three definitions of “culture” from English, French, and German dictionaries, culminating with the observation that “the type of culture that will concern us in this book has little to do with high art, towering intellectual accomplishments, or impeccable refinement in manners and taste. The focus here will be on those everyday cultural traits that are impressed so deeply in our mind that we do not recognize them as such.”
Readers may gain some insight into this author’s mindset at the beginning of the fourth chapter when he observes, “The year 1969 was particularly blessed with momentous historical events: man landed on the moon, I was born, and a little book called Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution was published in Berkeley and became an instant sensation in linguistics and anthropology.” Human conceptualization of color looms large throughout this book in reference to color classifications in multiple languages throughout the world, as well as the brain functions and eye physiology that allow people to perceive color, and the numerous ways in which colors are labeled in various languages.
Deutscher’s decision to devote extensive attention to color(s) is quite justifiable because color classification has been central to several social sciences and physical sciences, including psychology, linguistics, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology, among others. He exceeds color classifications and their labels, discussing matters of race, gender, and other complexities associated with linguistic formulations and their relationship to thought. In so doing he chose to divide the book into two parts: 1) The Language Mirror and 2) The Language Lens. The first chapter, “Naming the Rainbow,” is historical in nature, paying tribute to “the Right Honorable William Ewart Gladstone.” Readers familiar with British history will know well that Gladstone was a politician, but Deutscher concentrates on his scholarly endeavors and his extensive studies of Homer. It is Gladstone’s evaluation of Homer’s insights about language associated with color, from the original Greek, that spawned extensive intellectual dialogue and debate derived largely from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The chapter concludes with a somewhat surprising ending because the reader is left initially with the impression that Deutscher admires Gladstone, only to discover that “Gladstone was completely off course … underestimating the power of culture.”
The second chapter, “A Long-Wave Herring,” describes insights about color beginning with Lazarus Geiger, an Orthodox Jew who was a philologist that delivered the plenary lecture in 1867 to the Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians, “On the Color Sense in Primitive Times and its Evolution.” Deutscher effectively conveys the intellectual excitement of the era, confirming that Darwin’s The Origin of Species had a huge impact on scientists and others by citing George Bernard Shaw who observed, “Everyone who had a mind to change changed it.” (quoted on page 41) In addition to the historical evidence described in this chapter, a poignant tragedy from 1875 is depicted when a horrific train collision in Sweden was a source of great confusion and consternation. Efforts to determine the cause of that crash gave rise to some important experiments that revealed the existence of colorblindness among some railroad engineers. Additional remarks about color classification ensue before Deutscher moves, in chapter three, to “The Rude Populations Inhabiting Foreign Lands.”
Deutscher concentrates on Gladstone’s evaluation of Homer’s insights about language associated with color, from the original Greek, that spawned extensive intellectual dialogue and debate derived largely from the Iliad and the Odyssey. … the reader is left initially with the impression that Deutscher admires Gladstone, only to discover that “Gladstone was completely off course … underestimating the power of culture.”
Rude Populations? At this point Deutcher’s thesis becomes curiouser and curiouser. He begins with an unmitigated portrayal of a display in 1878 “of about thirty dark-skinned savages and their strange costumes (or lack thereof).” These captives, men, women, and children taken from Sudan, were referred to as Nubians by the “bearded” German intellectuals who examined them in a private viewing at the behest of the German anthropological society. Other examples quickly ensue regarding confusion about color classifications by both native speakers of Tagalog, and the Teda tribe in Chad. Other groups, including the Klamath Indians and the Sioux, along with habitants of the island of Nias (in Sumatra), are scrutinized regarding their respective classifications of color(s).
The chapter continues and takes an unexpected turn when Deutscher, in the dubious tradition of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, noted that “I started researching this book just as my elder daughter was learning to speak, and my obsession with color meant she was trained intensely and so learned to recognize color names relatively early on. … I decided to conduct a harmless experiment. … I decided never to mention the color of the sky to my daughter, although I talked about the color of all imaginable objects until she was blue in the face.” It is perhaps noteworthy to mention that this book is dedicated to “Alma,” the object of this experimentation. The collective insights drawn from the ways in which “Rude Populations” classify language, along with the anecdotal experiment performed on his daughter, further affirms Deutscher’s hypothesis. He comments that “The ancients could see colors just as well as we do, and the differences in color vocabulary reflect purely cultural developments, not biological ones.”
The last two chapters of part one continue, in the fourth chapter, with close attention to some of the significant work on color terminology. As previously noted, Deutscher was born in 1969 when Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay first appeared. The chapter is titled “Those Who Said Our Things Before Us,” and it is preceded by quotes in five different languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, which all make reference to the fact that things we describe today have already been described previously. And this is clearly the case regarding color classification, because the topic is one that has—for decades—been a source of basic knowledge for students of linguistics and anthropology. The classical observations by Berlin and Kay receive the most attention in chapter four, which concludes with observations regarding differences of opinion held by grammarians in contrast to culturalists.
The fifth chapter, “Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd,” shifts gears as the treatise introduces the linguistic edict that “All languages are equally complex.” Matters pertaining to the structure of language are foremost in this chapter, which pays tribute to Edward Sapir, who, in 1921, made reference to the fact that Plato walked with the Macedonian Swineherd, at least as far as the complexity of their respective languages are concerned. Classical contributions by Charles Hockett are described, along with general descriptions of “morphology,” “sound system” (i.e. phonology?), and “subordination.” Deutscher takes considerable care to make these technical topics accessible to general readers, although in so doing he utilizes illustrations from diverse languages that are unlikely to be familiar to most readers.
The second part, “The Language Lens,” begins with “Crying Whorf,” which pays tribute to the iconic linguistic discoveries of Edward Sapir, preceded by the importance of Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s assertions regarding linguistic relativity, which took place in the early 1800’s. This chapter is particularly noteworthy for two things: it provides introductions to linguistic luminaries while describing the foundations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it contains several vividly colorful illustrations that initially seem out of place. However, for publication purposes, these colorful images make reference to commentaries that appear throughout the book. Although it would surely have been Deutscher’s preference to have each color depiction placed within the text where it is relevant, it would appear that their consolidation in the middle of the book genuflects to matters of practicality and economy of production costs. Before providing other illustrations in the seventh chapter, titled “Where the Sun Doesn’t Rise in the East,” Deutscher speaks of some of the formidable challenges that translators face, making reference to hypothetical situations where translating dishwashing manuals or metaphysics or algebraic topology into the Papuan language would be formidable undertakings. The chapter closes with a brief critique of Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007), because—according to Deutscher—Pinker is somewhat dismissive of the effects of language on thought, considering such ventures to be mundane, if not trivial. The author takes considerable, if not personal, exception to this assertion, stating “they are far from boring, mundane, or trivial.”
Deutscher speaks of some of the formidable challenges that translators face, making reference to hypothetical situations where translating dishwashing manuals or metaphysics or algebraic topology into the Papuan language would be formidable undertakings.
To prove his point, Deutscher introduces Captain Cook’s encounter with native speakers of the Guugu Yimithirr language, along with depictions of what the natives referred to as Kanguroos. The chapter continues with additional accounts of the Guugu Yimithirr language, leading to some illustrations where Deutscher engages the reader with illustrations that are presented with considerable care so as to insure that readers have opportunities to contemplate the ways in which different languages convey directionality, often described in other linguistic texts as “deictic” relationships.
The eighth chapter, “Sex and Syntax,” explores the role of gender in languages, and the extent to which different gender representations might influence human thought. To illustrate this point Deutscher opens with a German poem by Heinrich Heine, followed by two different English translations of the poem. The point of this exercise illustrates that close grammatical translation may not capture nuances in intended meaning that are contained in the original poem, which is written in a different language. The remainder of the chapter illustrates many instances from languages that utilize gender distinctions in contrast to languages that do not make reference to gender. Additionally he recounts some experiments that were conducted on speakers of German and Spanish; both of these languages utilize gender but they do so in different ways. All of these observations lead to the question of whether gender depictions in language influence thought. Deutscher’s conclusions in this regard are not definitive, but descriptive—pointing out differences between the ways in which languages that employ gender differ from English, which does not.
The last chapter, “Russian Blues,” returns to commentaries about color(s). Most of the content of chapter nine is devoted to descriptions of experiments devoted to perceptual evaluations of color. Additional information is provided about the ways in which humans process color differences in the brain. The final remarks harken back to the beginning of the book, reintroducing Gladstone’s evaluation of Homeric depictions of color, ultimately leading Deutscher to observe “We are beginning to appreciate the differences in thinking that are imprinted by cultural convention, and, in particular, by speaking in different tongues.”
An informative epilogue, “Forgive Us Our Ignorances,” briefly recounts the main points raised throughout the book, along with the admission that some questions remain unanswered, due, in no small measure, to limitations in the advancement of various branches of science that could—at some future date—serve to unlock some of the remaining mysteries regarding language thought that the current book is incapable of resolving. The final appendix, “Color: In the Eye of the Beholder,” is devoted to the physiology of light detection by the human eye and its corresponding relevance to perceptions of color in light of the physiological structure of the eyeball along with the essential role that the cells of the retina contribute to the ways that people, blessed with the gift of sight, perceive color visually.
This complex book is a massive undertaking that benefits tremendously from Deutscher’s extensive knowledge of world languages and their history. Few linguists share comparable command of the plethora of languages that are vividly and routinely on display throughout the text. The work is bold, ambitious, and strives to combine insights from history, classical studies, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, biology, and physiology, to address the recurring intellectually perplexing conundrum regarding the ways that language may shape thought, which, according the Deutscher, are greatly influenced by corresponding conditions of cultural diversity. However, the suggestion that this book is a mere plaidoyer to culture is understated, if not misleading; in the final analysis this book is an argument in favor of multidisciplinary approaches to analyses that strive to examine the inevitably complex relationship between language and cognition. Culture is surely relevant, but it is far from paramount.