Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guy Deutscher's "Through the Language Glass"

This was a very well written, very entertaining, very informative book. It walks you through 150 years theorizing by linguists starting with the puzzle of why the Greeks wrote their classic with such few colour words and misapplied them so badly, e.g. sailing through a "wine-dark" sea, sheep are violet, the honey is green, and the sky is never blue.

The book looks at early claims by politician-scientist William Gladstone, that primitive tribes had under-developed visual systems that can be traced as developing in a clear progression from
black & white > red > yellow > green > blue
He shows that early anthropologists, psychologists, and linguists ruled out this theory, but confirmed that languages around the world showed this peculiar "progression" from limited colour vocabularies to increasingly larger ones using the above progression.

He then introduces the Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language defines your mental universe. George Steiner presents this as:
The use of the future tense has momentous consequences for the human soul and mind, as it shapes our concept of time and rationality, even the very essence of our humanity. "We can be defined as the mammal that uses the future of the verb 'to be,'" he explains. The future tense is what gives us hope for the future and without it we are all condemned to end "in Hell, that is to say, in a grammar without futures."
Whose overstatement of the case ended up being rejected by linguists by mid-20th century as the Boas-Jakobson assumption that all languages are equally expressive: "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey." This was an assumption of essential identity among languages.

But Guy Deutscher spends the last half of his book pointing out that linguists are coming back to the original 1858 insights of Gladstone. Yes, there is a progression from limited and simple colour terms (misapplied from our perspective) to the fuller spectrum of large book-based cultures, but it isn't because your visual systems changed, it is because we are constrained by our environment and the limited need for colour sophistication. And, yes, language does shape your conception and understanding of the world, but not in the over-heated and over-sold Sapir-Whorf view, but in more subtle ways. Here is the best summary:
In the light of the experiments reported in this chapter, color may be the area that comes closest in reality to the metaphor of language as a physical lens and does not affect the photons that reach the eye. But the sensation of color is produced in the brain, not the eye, and the brain does not take the signals from the retina at face value, as it is constantly engaged in a highly complex process of normalization, which creates an illusion of stable colors under different lighting conditions. The brain achieves this "instant fix" effect by shifting and stretching the signals from the retina, by exaggerating some differences while playing down others. No one knows how the brain does all this, but what is clear is that it relies on past memories and on stored impressions. It has been shown, for instance, that a perfectly gray picture of a banana can appear slightly yellow to us,because the brain remembers bananas as yellow and so normalizes the sensation toward what it expects to see. ...

It is likely that the involvement of language with the perception of color takes place on this level of normalization and compensation, where the brain relies on its store of past memories and established distinctions in order to decide how similar certain colors are. And although no one knows yet what exactly goes on between the linguistic and the visual circuits, the evidence gathered so far amounts to a compelling argument that language does affect our visual sensation.


More generally, the explanation of cognitive differences between ethnic groups has shifted over the last two centuries, from anatomy to culture. In the nineteenth century, it was generally assumed that there were significant inequalities between the hereditary mental faculties of different races, and that these biological inequalities were the main reason for their varying accomplishments. On e of the jewels in the crown of the twentieth century was the recognition of the fundamental unity of mankind in all that concerns its cognitive endowment. So nowadays we no longer look primarily to the genes to explain variations in mental characteristics among ethnic groups. But in the twenty-first century, we are beginning to appreciate the differences in thinking that are imprinted by cultural conventions and, in particular, by speaking in different tongues.
This is a delightful, entertaining, historical, and scientifically sophisticated book that will open your eyes to many new things. It is well worth a read.

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