Guy Deutscher: Through the Language Glass How Words Colour Your World?



Being modest and observing scientific caution for which the casual reader may not be prepared and I think maybe he is underestimating what can be learned from psychological as opposed to neuroanatomical findings I tend to see his results though in the light of many other cognitive findings about the impact of our programming so I m prepared to be impressedOne other point Deutscher s big point is that culture via language is impacting us culture as opposed to nature I m not uite sure the distinction between nature and nurture is as clear as he makes it Some evolutionary scientists think nowadays that biological evolution and culture interact It used to be believed we humans haven t biologically evolved in 50000 ears But many scientists today think evolution is still going on Some change is mediated through culture and then some individuals are better able to adapt to that cultural change and get their genes into the next generation For example the ability to benefit from dairy products Culturally some northern Europeans found dairy products to be a major food source in areas where the climate limited other food sources So those who had a mutation that allowed them to digest it survived and out bred the lactose intolerant That s my rather simplistic rendition of how nature could interact with nurture an example Jonathan Haidt uses in The Righteous Mind BLURBA masterpiece of linguistics scholarship at once erudite and entertaining confronts the thorny uestion of how and whether culture shapes language and language cultureLinguistics has long shied away from claiming any link between a language and the culture of its speakers too much simplistic even bigoted chatter about the romance of Italian and the goose stepping orderliness of German has made serious thinkers wary of the entire subject But now acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the issue Can culture influence language and vice versa Can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for blueChallenging the consensus that the fundaments of language are hard wired in our genes and thus universal Deutscher argues that the answer to all these uestions is Un mese con Montalbano yes In thrilling fashion he takes us from Homer to Darwin from Yale to the from how to name the rainbow to why Russia This is a fascinating book about how culture shapes language and how language shapes our view of reality Guy Deutscher is a linguist and he separates out in some detail the facts of this subject from fictionBecause there is a lot of fiction Much of what we have heard about how language shapes our world view is false Nietzsche s line that the limits of my language mean the limits of my world is absolutely false A true statement would be Languages differ in what they must convey not in what they may convey In other words languages force their speakers to use certain words in describing concepts but languages do not constrain their speakers from discussing conceptsThe fact that a language lacks a word that describes some concept does not mean that its speakers are unaware of that concept It just means probably that the concept is either not too important in that culture or that it is so all encompassing that it does not reuire a special word The first half of the book discusses the language mirror that is how language mirrors its culture The second part discusses the language lens how language shapes the world view of its speakersThe book starts out with a description of a big study by the prime minister of England William Gladstone of the works of Homer in one chapter he shows that the ancient Greeks did not use words that describe most colors They used words for black and white and rarely red or other colors He concluded that the ancient Greeks were color blind and that over the course of millennia evolution changed human visionGladstone was originally criticized for his outrageous theory but in a sense he was right on the mark The ancient Greeks did not have words for all the colors and it was evolution cultural evolution that gradually brought color words into the Greek vocabulary And it wasn t just the ancient Greeks Many contemporary languages in remote corners of the globe also have few words for colorsIt used to be thought that the complexity of a language mirrors the complexity of its society It is virtually impossible to objectively measure the overall complexity of a language But the complexity of certain aspects of a language are measurable For example the morphological complexity of a language the complexity of individual words is inversely correlated with the size of population that speaks it This is rather surprising and the author can only speculate on the reasons One amazing example is given in the language of the Matses a small tribe on the Their verbs are incredibly complex They have four past tense forms of verbs that describe how far back in time an action took place But in addition verbs must also describe evidentiality The verb must describe how the speaker learned of the action Does the verb express a direct experience something the speaker saw with his own eyes or something inferred something conjectured or hearsay Each and every verb must describe all this detail in a single wordI found the language lens to be absolutely fascinating It is very difficult for linguists or psychologists to isolate some aspect of a person s world view and to say that it is not only correlated with but caused by some aspect of his language But this has been done definitively in three areas spatial concepts gender and color For example in English and most European languages I think there are both ego centric up down in front behind left right and geo centric North South East West descriptors But some languages only have ego centric desriptors while others have only geo centric words Ego centric descriptors are mostly useful in urban areas such as whenou need to give someone directions go up the elevator to the 5th floor turn right pass two doors and take the corridor on the left In the countryside geo centric descriptions might sometimes be useful the river running to the south of the lake The tribes that speak languages that only have geo centric descriptions learn from a very early age to set up an internal compass This compass works regardless of visibility conditions it works in a dense forest in swamps sand dunes and in caves Only if our transport the speaker of such a language by airplane does he lose his sense of direction It s hard to imagine that such a person will never say the cow to my left but instead would say the cow to the north of meOccasionally this book seems a bit repetitive But it is a fine example of scientific digging for subtle answers to important uestions Technological Kickback Language is a form of technology perhaps the source technology from which all others are generated even if academic linguists have difficulty in seeing it as such Language may not look like look a technology because it s largely invisible It takes time and effort to master but then it s taken for granted so that it is no longer noticed But like any technology it does things for people which couldn t be done without it And like all technologies language does things to the people who use it which they never anticipated In both senses as tool and as environment language is the most powerful technology ever createdOr accurately the most powerful family of technologies because while all languages allow the same things to be achieved they don t do that in the same way Some languages like Ancient Greek are extremely precise and complicated in their components words or as Deutscher calls them labels and how these work together grammar to form very precise expressions Others like Hebrew are noticeably lacking in many of these features like extensive vocabularies and tenses Yet both can be used or less efficiently to express the same ideas Concepts seem constant while the labels change Or do theyThe mechanism of the language machine works on us as well as through us Eons before the term Artificial Intelligence was coined language itself took on a life of its own and started influencing the lives of human beings in ways of which we are entirely unaware Its categories and its logics come to be perceived as natural as an expression of the way the world really is Things and labels became conjoined Linguistic truth becomes confused with reality Reasonableness another linguistic trait becomes a universal standard of human behaviour Language runs the show Deutscher calls it culture which is shorthand for language at workOf course it isn t possible to even discuss the hegemony of language outside of language So the deck is stacked from the start But it turns out that there s a crack in the Great Linguistic Wall Each language has some distinctively uniue effects on the human beings who use it Differences can be compared in order to out the concealed structures that each language imposes These differences typically hide in plain sight As Deutscher says it turns out that the most significant connections between language culture and thought are to be found where they are least expected in those places where healthy common sense would suggest that all cultures and all languages should be exactly the same Culture likes to masuerade as human nature Most religions and generally ideologies for example claim that their precepts simply reflect the authentic being of Homo sapiens and the society that species has created The discovery that other cultures had different ideas about what constitutes true humanity typically provokes a sort of fundamentalist response of cultural superiority And naturally this response is expressed in words which often contain within themselves the very superiority being argued What the fundamentalists themselves don t understand is that they are being used by the language they think they controlThis is an important book and not just because it is an interesting and entertaining exposition of recent language research More importantly it lifts the veil of language just enough to see its creative mechanism at work No language provides a neutral objective description of the world All languages come with historical and ideological baggage which directs attention and prejudices conversation as much as it allows communication and cooperation It probably takes as much effort to recognise this as it does to learn a language in the first place The fact is that language is a cultural convention that doesn t masuerade as anything but a cultural convention Yes just like the internet claims to be nothing than a socially liberating form of communication Deutscher calls it a lens I m generalising a bit from that but I think making the metaphor useful The title as well as the contents is an obliue homage to the philosopher Richard Rorty s 1981 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature It often does take social sciences actually science in general one or two generations to catch up with good philosophy. Rough a strange and dazzling history of the color blue Deutscher argues that our mother tongues do indeed shape our experiences of the world Audacious delightful and provocative Through the Language Glass is destined to become a classic of intellectual discover.

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Tful So what In the end it all seems to amount to little of practical importance The second disappointment pertained only to the experience of reading this book on an 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 ou are contemplating reading the Kindle version DON T from the Brainyuote Facebook pageNature or nurtureIn the mid 19th century William Gladstone eminent British statesman and in view of how we think of politicians nowadays improbable source of scientific erudition noted through his Homeric studies that the ancients didn t see color as we do Wine dark sea And not only that but violet sea violet wool on sheep and violet iron And green chl ros for es sprouts but twigs Cyclops club HoneyPoetic license scoffed his naysayers but the patterns turned out to be too consistent for that He was on to something But what Were the ancients color blind Working just before the Darwinian revolution Gladstone thought everyone did that acuired traits were handed down As in the giraffe stretches its neck reaching for the choicest foliage ergo its children have longer necks Gladstone thought that only over the last millennium had our literal eye for color developed to its lofty modern level It seems ancient texts from other cultures likewise vary from the colors we see The next improbable thinker was philologist Lazarus Geiger an Orthodox Jew whose 1867 presentation to the Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians focused on blue and ellow as universally late developing color concepts and on red as the first after black and white He was also the first to discriminate between what we say and what we see But influenced by the new Darwinian science he thought anatomical evolution of the eye accounted for the facts Although clues to the contrary were cropping up this savant died mid career so wasn t around to pursue themWith emerging anthropological studies it was only natural for Western European man that Weaving the Web yardstick by which all humanity is to be judged right to be deemed the pinnacle of evolution while newly discovered and studied primitive races hadet to reach our level Ah evolution and oh the race science of the late 19th and early 20th centuryWith the crashing and burning of the biological approach and the triumph of culture such interpretations fell from grace Anything that smacked of the notion that savages were inferior to civilized people was viewed with distaste and in fact forgotten For example in America it was now being explicitly proclaimed as a tenet of anthropological science that culture was the only admissible factor in explaining mental differences between ethnic groups p 81 So regarding color the powers that were said that how a culture chose to speak of color was entirely arbitraryBut what about the discoveries of a universal order in the emergence of color names Along came a 1969 rediscovery of what had been forgotten Once again the pendulum swings and upsets the applecartWhen the dust has settled it seems that cultures do have freedom in naming divisions of the color spectrum within constraints The anatomy of the eye isn t the issue but rather the importance of color to us which accompanies our ability to separate colors from their objects and that accelerates when we start to use dyes and paints We find names for what we find it important to talk about First comes red the color of blood and always the first color named Next green and Declaration and Address Last Will and Testament yellow what s fresh And what s ripe Blue comes lastBiology vs cultureIt always seems that the way we do things is only right and natural Only by widening our horizons can we glimpse that our habits are just that habits not nature one way but not universal Color is the first ground the author tills to make us see that At the end of the book he has included an appendix on color vision Didou know that only primates developed trichromatic vision With only a little exaggeration one could say our trichromatic color vision is a device invented by certain fruiting trees in order to propagate themselves In particular it seems that our trichromatic color vision evolved together with a certain class of tropical trees that bear fruit too large to be taken by birds and that are ellow or orange when ripe The tree offers a color signal that is visible to the monkey against the masking foliage of the forests and in return the monkey either spits out the undamaged seed at a distance or defecates it together with fertilizer In short monkeys are to colored fruit what bees are to flowers p 247That ll put us in our placeThe author s overall thesis is that language does affect how we see the world In the bad old days of perceived Western European biological superiority it was commonly believed that various languages usually the observer s own permitted the most sublime expression where as limited read primitive languages those of others constrained what could be said and worse what could be thought Subseuently it became clear that whatever the idiosyncrasies of particular languages people could understand and could express various concepts So again it fell out of favor to think that languages affect how their speakers experience the world The prevalent view these days is that there is no such cultural effect ie no such differences between cultures The author mines two other areas in addition to color to show that our native tongue does color our view of the world directionality and genderAlthough we know the cardinal directions and can give directions in those terms we think it only natural that we usually speak with ourselves as the reference point as when we say left and right or in front of or behind me Well languages have been discovered in which people don t do that they think entirely in terms of east west north and south Although that seems unnatural even impossible to us they do it with ease In fact by practicing it as they learn to speak they install that way of thinking just as readily as we do our way of thinking of directionality In Daniel Kahneman s terms it becomes part of their fast intuitive thinking that they do naturally without even having to think about it In the above Family Circus comic from May 21 2014 the little girl has caught on to using herself as a reference point but apparently not to our culture s excluding of the cardinal directionsThe other linguistic area into which the author delves is gender Some languages make us express whether things are feminine or masculine But gender originally meant type and not sex There are languages in which gender depends on animacy animate vs inanimate instead of sex and there are languages that have than two genders for example humans size collectives liuids etcThe upshot of how languages affect our experience is contained in the followingSINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world Some 50 ears ago the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue if different languages influence our minds in different ways this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think aboutThe above uotation comes from the author s 2010 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine Ever since I read that article I ve wanted to read this book Then some time ago I spotted the hardback remaindered in Daedalus and now I m happy that I have read itThis author like the psychologist Daniel Kahneman with whose work I m enamoured offers us a chance to get outside our own heads That s just about the most fantastic thing we can do I have now applause please had a half hour don t laugh introduction to Kant s thinking I have a glimmer that Kant was speaking of the a priori structures of our thought which we cannot get out of and which govern all that we experience Today s cognitive scientists analogously point to what our thinking is evolutionarily programmed with and what gets programmed in so deeply through overlearning and habit that it may as well be innate And Primavera, estiu, etcètera yet andet sometimes we can get a glimpse over the walls into what another person sees and thinksThis author Guy Deutscher is somewhat self deprecating He is overly modest about what we can learn from psychological experimentation believing that only when we can watch as our brains work will we really know He sometimes does not express the full import of what it means to see Conseuently his conclusions can seem underwhelming as per this Guardian articleOf these three examples only the first felt significant The ability to know which way is north at all times even in the dark is an extraordinary skill that has useful applications The other two examples showed if anything that language barely has an effect on perception since the experiments seemed overly contrived and the results slightWhat has happened that the book s significance doesn t come through as it should Perhaps the meandering of the narrative throws the reader off the track if the reader doesn t realize the author is like a detective pursuing his leads historically But I think the main culprit is that the author downplays his findings Look at all the past figures he enumerates who drew erroneous conclusions Deutscher especially doesn t want to be like the mid 20th century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf whose name is mud today He made a lot of radical and since disproved claims about what limitations various languages impose on their speakers So Deutscher says that each alleged impact of language must be individually demonstrated He discounts the role of inference and Asylum Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals yet I think that in science deduction and induction work together Deutscher being overly hesitant about the implications of his findings would never have used the picture I have added at the first of this review He would never say as Daniel Kahneman does in Thinking Fast and Slow about the impact of various subliminal experiences on behaviorThe ideaou should focus on however is that disbelief is not an option The results are not made up nor are they statistical flukes You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusion of these studies are true More important Brown Sugar you must accept that they are true aboutou You do not believe that these results apply to Patti Smith Dream of Life you because they correspond to nothing inour subjective experience But Princesa adormecida your subjective experience consists largely of the story thatour System 2 tells itself about what is going on Priming phenomena arise in System 1 and ou have no conscious access to themAh well Deutscher is. The leading linguists have seemingly settled the issue all languages are fundamentally the same and the particular language we speak does not shape our thinking in any significant way Guy Deutscher says they're wrong From Homer to Darwin from Yale to the and th.

I finished this book like two weeks ago right when my job s special breed of life consuming crazy was bearing down on me with an animalistic rabidity Let s see what I remembered about it aside from the fact that it was generously packed with treats that made my inner word ne As a native Russian speaker I always felt different from Americans I ve always wondered if the language i was brought up with altered my thinking in ways Americans weren t I was hoping to get the answer in this book and I was really disappointedThe book started out strong showing how 3 different languages defined culture in different ways French being most romantic and German being most brutal But then once I started reading the book it never really delved deeply into the subject of how language affects thought or behavior The intro and reviews it was recommended on New York Times made it sound like a book about language affecting thought IT wasn tI liked Deutchers writing style He was easy to read and funny I liked his use of many examples and then defining the examples to make it REALLY easy to understand However he NEVER really defined how A Language makes ONE society s thought be different from another s He talked a little bit how a language FORCES one to pay attention and speak in a specific way I really loved his example of how some cultures only have N S E W directions instead of front back left right I understand what he said I liked his analysis on how can all language be eually complex they cant But i wish there were examples like that More than half of the book waaay too much was devoted to how different societies define colors For example how many cultures only have one word for green and blue Maybe it s just that many studies haven t been done on language and culture I don t know Then he devoted a TINY section of the book to sex of objects but not enoughThis book should have been titled Culture and Color I would have been less let down if he JUST focused on color he did so for than half the book and talk about other stuff sex of objects directions in another book Through the Language Glass was interesting and well researched but not what the book intro claimed to be about I can understand people who feel that Through the Language Glass didn t uite fulfill its promise The subtitle might be accurately does the world look different in other languages And the answer is es but in a limited way that won t be satisfying to those who want the answer to be an uneuivocal 101 Recipes for Microwave Mug Cakes yes People feel that the world is different for them in different languages and even that they are different in other languages but there just isn t the scientific data to back those feelings upFor me and this is a brief digression I do suspect that those who feel different when they speak other languages aren t taking into account context For example sayou speak Hebrew with The Ultimate Reality and Realization your family and English in school You are a different person in those two contexts but not because of the languageou speak You re adapting A History of the Councils of the Church Vol 3 yourself to the situation including the language I suspect that evenears after that division is so clear where ou might speak Hebrew to someone in the workplace the associations remainAnyway I found the book itself a bit dense and prone to repetition but overall very interesting I loved the discussion of the issue of colour in Homer s work as it s something that inevitably came up when discussing his epithets in class Why wine dark sea How could the sea look like wine And this book has the answerIt s fairly conservative in its conclusions not going beyond the available data and mocking rather people who did go beyond their data and explaining everything at some length rather than packing in various new ideas It does include a lot of examples and interesting facts about various languages like languages which don t use egocentric directions but always geographical ones I would ve been interested in a bit on gendered language but it doesn t seem as if the work has been done there et It also gives some credit for ideas that were ahead of their time even if they were founded on shaky principles which was interestingUltimately Deutscher explains why early assumptions that language affects the way we perceive the world were wrong but then goes on to explain that that instinctive feeling isn t wrong in itself I suppose I hold linguists to a higher standard than civilians regarding their word choice and articulation of ideas After all if there s one category of people who should know about the power of words it s this one Which is why I m so disappointed by this bookThe book is called Through the Language Glass Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages When Eisenhower portrait of the hero you re done with itou would expect to know why according to the author the world looks different in other languages And while one or two chapters towards the end of the book attempt to tackle this uestion they only offer evidence relating to a few areas namely colour gender and geographical orientation Things that aren t exactly secrets that most people who have heard about languages will already know vary from one to anotherThe bulk of the book is mainly concerned in history and anecdotes The history of the study of colour perce This is what I call Having a Really Good Time Yes I know but then some people go ice fishing For fun So if like me The Think and Grow Rich Workbook you are a language geek and have a fairly uiet life then this might beour idea of a high old time too Because Guy Deutscher manages that most demanding combination On one hand he is an academic linguist which ou might assume would mean he uses phrases like pro drop parameter or boundary conditions or declarative sentences or funny words like morpheme or evidentiality haha But on the other hand his writing style is playful lucid engaging and irresistibly amusing Yes it s true there is such a thing as an entertaining linguistDeutscher takes up the slightly disreputable idea that language may have some influence on our thought patterns This is the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater when Benjamin Lee Whorf s notion that language determines our picture of reality was rejected as fanciful Whorf made some rather presumptuous assumptions claiming that language constrained our minds and prevented us from being able to understand certain concepts If a language has no future tense for example then its speakers would not have any grasp of the notion of future time Laughable really but it was a theory that had currency for ears Once that theory had crashed it became unfashionable to even think about the possibility that thought patterns might be influenced by language but Deutscher examines how different languages force their speakers to pay attention to certain aspects of reality One of the most impressive examples is the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr from north ueensland Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like left or right in front of or behind to describe the position of objects Whenever we would use the egocentric system the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions If they want Imagine Me you to move over on the car seat to make room they ll say move a bit to the east To tellou where exactly they left something in Los Libros Malditos your house they ll say I left it on the southern edge of the western table Or they would warnou to look out for that big ant just north of The Ilgiad your foot Even when shown a film on television they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen If the television was facing north and a man on the screen was approaching they said that he was coming northward As one might expect this necessity of specifying geographic directions all of the time means that the speakers of this language and there are others in the world that are similar have to develop an unfailing sense of orientation Which of course they do being able to feel where north and south east and west are in the same way as we feel where behind is Actually it saves the troubleou get with rotation when The Style and Mythology of Socialism you use the egocentric right and left no wouldou need to ask Kral Kaybederse your left or mine East is eastDeutscher is cautious about leaping to any other conclusion than saying that language can develop a certain habit of mind and speculating that there may be correlated influences on such things as memory or learning But further than that he will not go as the evidence is just not availableet despite some fantastically ingenious testing methods to explore cognitive faculties I do find that ingenuity amazing but Deutscher points out in his epilogue that the ingenuity reuired is a sign of weakness it is needed because we know so little about how the brain works Were we not profoundly ignorant we would not need to rely on roundabout methods of gleaning information from measures such as reaction speed to various contrived tasks True enough I suppose But I m impressed none the less The first foreign language I learned to complete fluency was German after five ears of high school German I spent a ear at a German boys boarding school At the end of that Nine Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki 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 linguistsIn 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 eg 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 readTwo factors contributed to my eventual disappointment with this book The first is that even after Deutscher s careful elouent persuasive analysis one s final reaction has to be a regre. A New York Times Editor's ChoiceAn Economist Best Book of 2010A Financial Times Best Book of 2010A Library Journal Best Book of 2010The debate is ages old Where does language come from Is it an artifact of our culture or written in our very DNA In recentears.

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Guy DeutscherGuy Deutscher is the author of Through the Language Glass and The Unfolding of Language Formerly a Fellow of St John's College Cambridge and of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Languages in the University of Leiden in the Netherlands he is an honorary Research Fellow at the School of Languages Linguistics and Cultures in the University of ManchesterThrough The Language Glass has been short listed for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2011