Through the Language Glass

Guy Deutscher

Is the complexity of language a universal constant that reflects the nature of the human race, as linguists assert, or is it a variable that reflects the speakers’ culture?

If language weren’t so central to our sense of who we are, linguistics would be just another modest academic specialty.

It’s largely because language is so close tied to identity that everything from debates over word origins to claims of a universal grammar stirs up disproportionate storms online, and in the many books and journals devoted to the subject.

Among the recent linguistic stirrer-uppers is Guy Deutscher’s bestselling look at the influence of language on thought, Through the Language Glass.

The book isn’t brand new, but I went looking for it after reading a recent online revival of the controversy over Daniel Everett’s claim that the Pirahã language completely lacks recursion (subordinate clauses). At first considered devastating for universal grammar theory, Everett’s research has itself come under increasing fire.

Deutscher enters the linguistic dustup between nature (the linguists) and nurture (the relativists) somewhere near the middle, which makes him a bit of an outlier, giving both extremes something to dislike.

While rejecting the idea that language is all culture, he even more firmly disagrees with the notion that thought is controlled by language. He argues that “In light of all the evidence, it seems to me that the balance of power between culture and nature can be characterized most aptly by a simple maxim: culture enjoys freedom within constraints.”

Deutscher’s book has several attractions for an amateur like me. First, to the non-expert he presents an informative summary of the history of once prominent theories, going all the way back to Gladstone, the Prime Minister and Homer scholar.

The key issue in the book is to what extent, or whether at all, language regulates thought. In other words, was George Orwell right in 1984 to warn that controlling the language controls the ways we can think?

Deutscher’s conclusion is that Orwell was wrong, that while language influences the habits of thought, it doesn’t restrict the possibilities of thought. Not having a word for something doesn’t mean that you can’t think of it.

The second main focus of Through the Language Glass is an elaboration of the idea that while language doesn’t control thinking, it does influence the ways in which we habitually think. Deutscher argues:

The crucial differences between languages, in other words, are not in what each language allows its speakers to express—for in theory any language could express anything—but in what information each language obliges it speakers to express.

This is the reverse of what the strictest nativists claim. Deutscher believes that languages restrict form, but not content. They influence the typical ways in which we express the things about which we think, but they do not keep us from thinking certain things.

To illustrate this point, Deutscher provides a number of fascinating examples of language tendencies. These examples — primarily of differences in the ways that languages categorize colours and in the ways that languages express relative position — are familiar to those well versed in linguistics, but the rest of us are enthralled.

The position/directions examples are particularly interesting. Deutscher provides examples of languages which lack all “egocentric” directionality, languages that never produce a sentence like “The book you want is on your right.” Instead, these languages might direct you to the north, or uphill, or seaward, as the case may be. One group that lives on the slopes of a mountain range can direct you uphill or downhill easily, but their only other principal direction is “sideways,” requiring speakers to to construct sentences like “The book you want is sideways toward the village.” Through the Language Glass is full of engaging examples like this, and they provided much of the book’s interest for me.

Again, Deutscher does not claim that his exemplars, who understand directions differently than we do, differently than we think it “normal” to do, cannot see or think in other ways. Their languages habituate them to certain ways of looking at the world, but language doesn’t restructure their visual system or hard-wire their brain.

Deutscher argues, nevertheless, that “cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways.” But does our mother tongue influence the way we think? He rejects the “Whorfian” idea of “linguistic relativity,” the idea that language restricts thought, characterizing it as “an intellectual tax haven for mystical philosophers, fantasists, and postmodern charlatans.”

There is one toxic fallacy that runs like quicksilver through all the arguments we have encountered so far, and this is the assumption that the language we happen to speak is a prison-house that limits the concepts we are able to understand.

Elaborating, Deutscher writes:

It is barely comprehensible that such a ludicrous notion could have achieved such currency, given that so much contrary evidence screams in the face wherever one looks. Do ignorant folk who have never heard of “Schadenfreude” find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Conversely, do Germans, whose language uses one and the same word for “when” and “if” (wenn), fail to understand the logical difference between what might happen under certain conditions and what will happen regardless? Did the ancient Babylonians, who used the same word (arnum) for both “crime” and “punishment,” not understand the difference? If so, why did they write thousands of legal documents, law codes, and court protocols to determine exactly what punishment should be given for what crime?

Yet, Deutscher writes, “although Whorf’s wild claims were largely bogus, I will try to convince you later that the notion that language can influence thoughts should not be dismissed out of hand.”

He cites a number of empirical studies to show that language does, indeed, affect the ways in which we habitually think about things that languages express differently. One of these studies examined how the gender of nouns influences our characteristic ways of thinking about those things that the nouns represent. For example, when native speakers of Spanish were tasked with associating certain objects with strength or weakness, nouns that are masculine in Spanish (bridges and clocks) were judged “stronger” than were nouns that are feminine in Spanish (chairs and keys). When the test was run on native speakers of German, in which the words for these things have the opposite gender, the results were switched.

Obviously, Spaniards don’t think of chairs as being really women, nor do Germans believe that keys are really men. Their language doesn’t lead native speakers to make that kind of strange error. Yet the gender assignment of nouns does seem indirectly to influence the characteristics with which words for nouns are associated.

Deutscher gives many other examples of how the structures of our languages influence our thinking. This leaves him in the middle of the language wars, rejecting the idea that language controls thought and at the same time arguing that language, through culture, shapes our habitual thinking. He concludes:

This book set out to show, through the evidence supplied by language, that fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by the cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today.

By refusing to take to one extreme or the other, Deutscher’s thesis sets him up for the storm of criticism that Through the Language Glass has generated. And his claim, like many “middle ground” arguments, is likely to be closer to the truth than are the shrill, one-sided views with which he disagrees.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the details of language, if you’ve ever read a dictionary or a grammar for the pure pleasure of it, you’ll find reading Through the Language Glass well worth your time.


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