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Guy Deutscher


How Words Colour Your World

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Guy Deutscher is the author of one of the most stimulating books on language, The Unfolding of Language. That was about the origin of language, but here Deutscher deals with an idea that is now discounted by most linguistics but which was at one time influential. This is the theory that languages shape the mentality of the people who speak them and may even make it impossible for their speakers to think certain thoughts. It became prominent in the 1930s thanks to two American linguists, Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir. Though it is no longer taken seriously by most linguists today, Deutscher thinks that it contains a grain of truth, though not in the way it was first proposed.

How language deals with colour is a central part of Deutscher's argument. Homer is famous for his repeated use of the epithet 'wine dark' to describe the sea. This prompted William Gladstone, who as well as being a Prime Minister was a Greek scholar particularly fascinated by Homer, to make a detailed examination of the great poet's use of colour descriptions. This led him to the conclusion that the ability to discriminate colours visually is a recent development and that the process was incomplete among the Greeks of Homer's time.


Deutscher then goes on to look at how language shapes other perceptions. For example, whether you describe your position in space in relation to the points of the compass or your own body (left and right) depends partly on the language you speak. But this is a two-way process, because the way people in a culture locate themselves in space also depends on the geography of where they live, and this in turn influences their language.

Another way in which language subtly affects how speakers think is in relation to gender. Languages such as French and Spanish have two genders, masculine and feminine, whereas others, such as Greek and German, have neuter as well; other languages have still more. This is one of the major obstacles encountered by English speakers in learning these languages, in my experience, because English lacks genders almost completely. And guessing genders in a foreign language is full of pitfalls, because there often seems to be no logical explanation for how they are assigned, nor do the languages that use genders always agree with one another about them. Deutscher has the best discussion of this puzzling subject that I have come across.

Like his previous book, this one is written in an engaging style, with plenty of jokes and plays on words that illustrate what he is talking about. It should not be missed by anyone who is interested in language. But its final message is rather depressing. In the past, linguists generalised on the basis of knowledge of the relatively few languages they were familiar with, and this led them to make unjustified assumptions. With increasing information about the vast numbers of languages that actually exist, we are now much better informed and more objective. But we had better hurry, because this state of affairs won't last. Languages, like species, have always been going extinct, but today - again like species—languages are disappearing throughout the world at an ever-increasing rate. If present trends continue, there will be only a handful of languages still being spoken by the end of the century. We therefore need to record those that still exist as quickly as possible, before they disappear.

1 November 2010

%T Through the Language Glass
%S How Words Colour Your World
%A Deutscher, Guy
%I William Heinemann
%C London
%D 2010
%G ISBN 9780434016907
%P 310pp
%K language
%O hardback, colour plates

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