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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages » User review

Interesting, if you're a language geek.

  • Oct 7, 2010

The first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German - after five years of high school German I spent a year at a German boys' boarding school. At the end of that year I was completely fluent, but noticed an odd phenomenon, that I felt like a slightly different person when I spoke German than when speaking English. Since then I've also learned Spanish to a high degree of fluency, and the same observation holds. In both cases, the main difference that I perceive has to do with humor, and the way the language I'm speaking affects my sense of humor. So I've always been interested in the extent to which language affects thought. The notion that it does is what linguists refer to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Belief in Sapir-Whorf reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century, but since then the notion that language affects cognition has been discredited by almost all mainstream linguists.

In "Through the Language Glass" Guy Deutscher mounts a careful, very limited defence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He considers three major areas - the link between language and color perception, how different languages deal with spatial orientation, and the phenomenon of differences in noun genders across different languages. His examination of the link between language and color perception is extensive and thought-provoking - he traces the development of linguistic theory on color perception from British prime minister Gladstone's commentary on the relative paucity of color terms in Homer's work, through the Berlin-Kay model (stating essentially that languages all tend to split up the color spectrum in similar ways) through very recent experiments suggesting that the existence of a particular color distinction in a language (e.g. the existence of separate terms in Russian for light and dark blue) affects the brain's ability to perceive that distinction. Deutscher's account of the evolution of linguistic theory about color perception is a tour de force of scientific writing for a general audience - it is both crystal clear and a pleasure to read. This material, which makes up about half the book, makes the book a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in languages.

Two factors contributed to my (slight) eventual disappointment with this book. The first is that, even after Deutscher's careful, eloquent, persuasive analysis, one's final reaction has to be a regretful "Is that all there is?" In the end, it seems to amount to little of practical importance. The material about noun genders, in particular, didn't really add up to any coherent overall message.

The second disappointment pertained only to the experience of reading this book on an Amazon Kindle. Reference is made throughout to a "color insert" which evidently contained several color wheels as well as up to a dozen color illustrations. This feature was completely absent from the Kindle edition, which had a severe adverse effect on the overall experience of reading this book. Obviously, this point is relevant only if you are contemplating reading the Kindle version - DON'T!


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October 09, 2010
The color insert is of interest, but you did not miss that much. I agree that the book seemed to belabor the color & then the gender material, while the pivot, halfway through, I found far more intriguing: how intimacy affects complexity of language. You might want to read "Unfolding of Language" as I recall this expands this material. Deutscher's strength is that he can convey clearly dense material; but he goes on too long with his own coverage of it. I wanted a broader "spectrum" of examples and topics.
October 09, 2010
...I'm trying to be a language geek :P I'm speak a couple of languages fluently and have attempted to learn others. Never really made it to advance levels in the ones I tried to learn though. Perhaps a book like this will help me comprehend them better. Thanks for sharing this great review!
More Through the Language Glass: Wh... reviews
review by . September 29, 2010
How much does our culture determine, or liberate, our language's ability to express what we see? In his first book, "The Unfolding of Language," Deutscher mentioned how colors evolved in verbal expression from a primitive stage. Words entered language first for a binary black-white, later adding red, then yellow-green, and finally blue. But, he skimmed past this factoid as he rushed on to other theoretical matters. He returns to make this subject the heart of this sequel.   …
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“Jaw-droppingly wonderful… A marvelous and surprising book. The ironic, playful tone at the beginning gradates into something serious that is never pompous, something intellectually and historically complex and yet always pellucidly laid out. It left me breathless and dizzy with delight.”
—Stephen Fry, presenter of Stephen Fry in America, host of QI, and author of Moab Is My Washpot
Through The Language Glass is so robustly researched and wonderfully told that it is hard to put down… Deutscher brings together more than a century’s worth of captivating characters, incidents, and experiments that illuminate the relationship between words and mind… He makes a convincing case for the influence of language on thought, and in doing so he reveals as much about the way color words shape our perception as about the way that scientific dogma and fashion can blind us.”
— Christine Kenneally, New Scientist
“This fabulously interesting book describes an area of intellectual history replete with brilliant leaps of intuition and crazy dead-ends. Guy Deutscher, who combines enthusiasm with scholarly pugnacity, is a vigorous and engaging guide to it… A remarkably rich, provocative, and intelligent work.”
— Sam Leith, The Sunday Times (UK)
“A brilliant account of linguistic research over two centuries… As befits a book about language, this inspiring amalgam of ...
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Books, Linguistics, Languages, Cultures, Comparative Linguistics


ISBN-10: 080508195X
ISBN-13: 978-0805081954
Author: Guy Deutscher
Genre: Reference, Nonfiction
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
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