The culture of speech

How language may help shape our view of world

Guy Deutscher is an Israeli-born linguist based in Oxford, England. Guy Deutscher is an Israeli-born linguist based in Oxford, England. (Janie Steen)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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Does a person who grows up speaking Tamil or Occitan or Quechua see the world differently than a native English speaker? Or, as linguist Guy Deutscher puts it: “Does our mother tongue influence the way we think?”

Among those who study language, this question has generated centuries of debate. Aristotle, for one, believed we all share concepts — say, the color blue — whose names change according to culture. But, as Deutscher notes in “Through the Language Glass,’’ linguists have observed that concepts and categories do vary by language; for example, ancient Japanese used one word, ao, to cover the blue-green spectrum, while English employs two. So do we all see the same colors? More broadly, do distinctive languages reflect distinctive cognition rather than overlying universal ways of thinking?

Some linguists, like Deutscher, have gone even further, asking whether language not only reflects its speakers’ thinking but helps create it — an idea known as linguistic relativity. In 1936, Benjamin Lee Whorf famously claimed that the Hopi lack words for time, and therefore could not possibly understand it “as a smooth flowing continuum” as English speakers do. (Scholars have subsequently questioned Whorf’s knowledge of Hopi, which others have observed to have plenty of words denoting time.)

Eventually, Eurocentric linguists moved past both xenophobic assumptions that the “grunts” of aboriginal people indicated primitive thinking and the more romantic idea that foreign languages reflected exotic modes of thought. Today, armed with better research on far-flung languages and Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, scholars generally agree that human cognition is strikingly similar worldwide. In “The Language Instinct,’’ Steven Pinker declared flatly, “There is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.”

So Deutscher, an Israeli-born linguist based in Oxford, England, shows nerve in wading back into the debate. He bills his book as a provocation, written “against the fashionable academic view.” In reality, “Through the Language Glass’’ is cautious and even-handed, more prone to digression than bombast. After 100 pages on the history of ideas about how culture, language, and cognition intersect, Deutscher finally proposes three relatively minor examples of how language affects thought. Does language influence how we think? Pinker would say “Not much.” Deutscher has written a whole book to say, in effect, “Well, a little.”

To some, this may seem like splitting hairs. But Deutscher’s book still makes for an informative, pleasurable read. A gifted writer, he picks his way nimbly past overblown arguments to a sensible compromise: Within the bounds of certain natural categories, culture freely dictates linguistic formation.

Deutscher chooses color as a theme for his intellectual history, which he relates with patience and wit. He describes Victorians who, faced with Homer’s offbeat references to color, concluded that ancient Greeks must have been colorblind, and 19th-century Germans who observed that one Sudanese people called blue objects black or green — and insisted on testing their eyesight. In truth, both groups saw just as we do but categorized the color spectrum differently.

Deutscher lets these bumblers off easy, acknowledging that someday “our MRI scans will look just as sophisticated as cutting off mice’s tails” to see whether acquired traits are inherited. He reserves his harshest critiques for modern linguists. Today, as a correction to racist notions of grunting Aboriginals, all languages are often said to be equally complex. This claim, Deutscher objects, is both unproven and unprovable. By what metric? Number of phonemes? Vocabulary size? As he argues convincingly, linguists should know better than to parrot such “hollow slogans.”

Finally, as promised, Deutscher delivers his evidence that language significantly affects thought. While he agrees with Pinker that linguistic differences don’t affect our ability to reason, he contests Pinker’s subsequent conclusion: that “any remaining effects of language on thought are mundane, unsexy, boring, even trivial.” And yet, to my mind, two of Deutscher’s three examples do indeed fall short of significant. First, in languages that assign genders to inanimate objects, speakers may play metaphorically on these genders (in poetry, for example). Second, linguistic divisions of the color spectrum encourage us to perceive slightly larger differences between shades in different categories.

The third example, however, is more alluring. In most languages, we describe small-scale directions through an egocentric system: “The door is on your right.” But, Deutscher writes, in one nearly extinct Australian language, Guugu Yimithirr (its greatest crossover hit is the word “kangaroo”), speakers use cardinal directions instead: “There’s a mosquito on your north arm.” As a result, by the age when American children master left and right, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr develop “perfect pitch for directions” and thereafter constantly track this layer of information. While English speakers can speak in terms of north or south, it’s not linguistically obligatory, and as a result we never develop this cognitive habit.

This example alone represents a strong case for exploring more limited forms of linguistic relativity. True, Deutscher departs scarcely further from current doctrine than blue-green from green-blue in the old Crayola box. But, as his book illustrates, it is through just such incremental distinctions that science advances, and that we move ever closer to understanding the human mind.

Amanda Katz is a writer, editor, and translator who lives in New York. She can be reached at amanda@amandalkatz .com.

THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
By Guy Deutscher
Metropolitan, 304 pp., illustrated, $28