Through the Language Glass

"Through the Language Glass" by Guy Deutscher is my favourite kind of book. It unpacks an academic subject for a mainstream audience and does so with a fluidity which, in this case, meant that I soon found myself looking at the appendix and wishing there was more. Actually, even the appendix was interesting and well written and that was the only part of the book within which I was already familiar with the information.

Reviewing a book where the presented information is the primary point (rather than what is evoked in the reader) can be a bit tricky, at least for me. Earlier this year I reviewed "Where does money come from?". I was similarly excited by that book, so much so that I regurgitated the subject matter rather than "reviewing" anything else about it. I would do you a disservice if I did the same this time. For instance, Mr Deutscher's entertaining illumination of the use of colour in language was thoroughly surprising and very satisfyingly built over several chapters. I wouldn't like to pre-empt the revelations.

The focus of the book is twofold. The first half is on the interaction between language and culture. This begins very simply by looking at the naming of things. It appears that humans are pretty consistent at how they classify physical objects, presumably because classifying physical things is a pretty important survival trait. Food for example (and things that might class you as food) are, of course, physical objects. On the other hand, anything that falls outside the realm of tangible things is much more conducive to being culturally classified. Such cultural classifications can vary hugely. One of the joys of reading this book is in finding out just how alien other languages can be in the way they treat everyday concepts.

The second half of the book is about measurable effects that language has on cognition. If you've ever been exposed to the dire history of language-dictating-your-world-view then fear not. There is no airy hand-waving here, just scientific method and well-deserved skewering of the ludicrous assertions that were made when there was relatively easy access to overwhelming counter-evidence.

The author excels in keeping perspective and evidence separate. The book is as much a story about the development of aspects of linguistics as it is about the relationships between language, culture and cognition. As this story unfolds, the reader receives a wealth of historical information peppered with illuminating examples that are often surprising, sometimes amusing and occasionally heart-warming. But the book's warmth doesn't prevent Deutscher from strictly basing his conclusions on available evidence.

There was just one point in the whole book at which I felt a minor wrinkle of dissatisfaction. This was a couple of pages where English translations of a German poem were discussed. The compromises that Deutscher saw in these translations did not feel like compromises at all to me. His perception of these translations obviously differed greatly from mine and I couldn't help wondering whether this was because of our different first languages. Having said that; English speakers, please don't think that there is any kind of barrier here because of language. The book is written in a way that frequently assumes that the reader's first language is English. (I found myself wondering whether there were any plans to translate it and how hard that might be.)

As you will have noticed, I thoroughly enjoyed "Through the Language Glass". I would recommend it to anyone who likes to learn and who appreciates an eloquent teacher with a warm humour and a keen eye for idiocy.

Justin Hellings

I'm a geek in a world that insists on being irrational and a greenie in a society that insists on speeding towards its own destruction. There's some work to be done here. Nah, let's go snowboard. Woo!

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