Deutscher, Guy, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at   Amazon Review

The last paragraph of the book, a parody of the Lord's Prayer, says it all, "...forgive us our ignorances as we forgive those who were ignorant before us." If Deutscher's study tells us anything, it is that arriving at the mist-shrouded Camelot where mother tongue, heredity and culture may be connected in a meaningful way, is still a long way off, and that sallies toward its gates seem often at best to suffer from backtracking, running around in circles, and forgotten coordinates, as well as "chicken and egg" siege plans.

Deutscher is a very clever and entertaining writer, sometimes to the point of distraction. The reader comes to expect a scintillating and original phrase as a relief from the tedium of reflecting on a landscape where the mountain has long been in labor to birth not much more than a funny little mouse or two. Deutscher's playful pen keeps us slogging through the turns and twists of recent centuries of research that yield little light or joy, despite being punctuated by moments of exhilaration when a trove of "fool's gold" is uncovered by this or that savant.

The greater part of the book traces our efforts to understand how color is perceived and described in language. It is about whether the human color sense has been developing in historical times as part of our evolution as a species, or whether our color distinctions have developed in various degrees by heredity, language, and culture. One would think that this would be an easy place to expose the connections between these three elements. It is anything but. Beginning with Gladstone's reflections on why Homer saw a "wine dark sea" and tasted honey that was green, the discussion lurches forward in time, with reversals of opinion and shifts of focus on why we see things differently, if indeed we do, or why we speak about them differently. Tiresome and inconclusive as most of this research has been, it is nonetheless important to continue to ask ourselves about the implications of how we differ in seeing and saying things, despite the fading evidence from languages and cultures, once labeled as "primitive," that provide the starkest contrasts of behavior.
Besides the bête noire (bleu, verte?) of color distinctions, The Language Lens explores how various languages and cultures tend to describe such things as giving directions and orientating oneself and other objects in space. Again, while the phenomena are obvious in spoken description, we are still faced with the conundrum how such differences have come about, though it becomes obvious that they are passed down at least in culture and language from infancy on. Whether I describe the curb stone as in front of my foot," as "north of my foot," or as "downhill from my foot," it seems less in doubt today that this is due to my upbringing and tutelage, rather than to my native talent or the configuration of my genes. My mother tongue may take some of its words from the landscape of my native land, but then your group, inhabiting the same plains and hills may not see it my way and may speak of it differently.

Most interesting for this reader was the section in which the author treats of what my mother tongue requires me to say (or doesn't) when I speak to you. In my native English I am free to say, "A friend visited me last night." You may speak a language in which gender distinctions cannot be as noncommittal as mine. The very structure of the language, grammar, and word declensions may require one to specify whether the visitor was a girl or boy, as I myself discovered many years ago in high school German class. Perhaps, where you come from, the time of evening will be necessarily more specific, too. There is a range of such requisite modes of expression found in different languages, where vagueness is linguistically impossible or even socially verboten.

Nor is the development of sexual identification in language any more evident. Mark Twain is exhumed to remind us that a German girl is an "it," while a turnip is a "she." In some places in the world, gender can only be male or female, while in other places "it" may denote anything that is less obviously masculine or feminine, and in yet other places may add multiple grammatical distinctions beyond gender. On a similar note, studying high school classics I was shocked to learn that the philosophic dilemma of "the one and the many" was further complicated linguistically when I had to learn declensions of words, not just in singular or plural, but In dual number, when speaking of just two things. It was literally "all Greek to me." Other languages have even broader ranges of expression when it comes to numbering things and positioning them in personal relationship and in physical space.

These differences raise questions, largely unresolved, about if, and how and to what degree such linguistic vicissitudes may impact our consciousness and determine our sensibilities toward each other as male and female, or the level of precision with which we seem to respect or abuse time. While political correctness has tried with limited success to level the German gender playing field, so to speak, it introduces complexities that are even more awkward than the slash and burn of "s/he" and the singularly castrated "they" of today's politically proper Yankee English.

These are fascinating topics for the interculturalist, yet as the author's Lord's Prayer admits, they seem to produce more speculation than operational certitude, more wonderment than comfort, and perhaps will most benefit academe by providing a bottomless well of dissertation and research topics that will struggle to beg funding.

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