Guy Deutscher on ‘Through the Language Glass’


At Work

Guy Deutscher, right. Photograph by Janie Steen.

Have you ever asked someone if the hot water is in the uphill tap? Maybe you’ve warned a friend of the fire ants north of his foot. Or perhaps you’ve merely suggested, with all delicacy, that your date
might like to brush the cake crumbs from her mountainward cheek. Doesn’t make any sense? Maybe that’s because you don’t speak Tzeltal, Guugu Yimithirr, or Balinese. In
Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher discusses these and other differences in thought and perception occasioned by the world’s many tongues. He is currently an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Recently, he answered some of my questions about his new book via e-mail.

In the introduction to your book, you point out the many ways the general public overestimates the influence of language on thought and experience. Why do you think that is? And are there any respects in which ordinary people underestimate language’s influence?

Can it be that we tend to overestimate the influence of language partly because we so often underestimate the intelligence of other people? Think about common arguments on the lines of “if you call something X, people will believe it’s X just because of the name.” We rarely hear, “If you call something X, I will start believing it’s X just because of the name.” I obviously know better. But others don’t. This type of overestimation has a long history. One of the earliest discussions of the influence of language on thought was an essay by the Bible scholar Johann David Michaelis from 1760, which won the prize of the of the Prussian academy. In it, Michaelis explains that if, for example, one gave completely different names to two vegetables which are in reality quite similar, “the people” would never suspect that they are similar. He’d obviously not heard of clementines, mandarins, tangarines, and satsumas.

On the other hand, it is also true that we underestimate the influence of language, as I tried to show in the book. What we are not sufficiently aware of is the force of the habits that language can create, through the distinctions that it trains us to make and the types of information that it trains us to be attentive to from an early age. And ironically, the areas where the mother-tongue can make a real impact on thought are exactly where common sense would expect all languages to be the same, for instance in the way we describe the space around us or the way we talk about colors.

You say that if a language has a word for the color blue, it will almost certainly have a word for red, but not vice versa. What does this sort of asymmetry tell us about the perception of color?

First: not “almost certainly” but “certainly”—we don’t know of any exceptions to this rule. The initial conclusion of scholars in the nineteenth century was that this asymmetry reflects very recent biological improvements in color vision. It took a long time and a good deal of pain to come to terms with the realization that the development of color names reflects profound cultural changes, not anatomical ones. A large part of the book is spent trying to get to terms with the counterintuitive fact that the color distinctions we make are heavily influenced by cultural conventions and are not merely given to us by nature. The bottom line, very crudely, is this: People find a name for red before they develop a name for blue not because they can see the former before the latter, but because we find names for what we think is important to talk about, and red is more important in the life of people in all simpler cultures than blue.

In the book, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its aftermath receive significant discussion. Could you briefly state the hypothesis? What’s wrong with it, most fundamentally?

Especially as expounded by Whorf, what was most wrong with it was the underlying assumption that the language we speak is a prison-house that restricts our ability to think, reason, and understand. Whorf argued on the lines of “if a language has no words for concept X, the speakers would not be able to understand X.” But there has never been any convincing evidence for such restrictive influence of the mother-tongue, and there are in fact thousands of counter examples wherever one cares to look. We can perfectly well understand things even if our language doesn’t provide us with ready-made labels for them.

Why do you think this hypothesis of linguistic relativity has proved so attractive outside the field of linguistics—for instance, in many humanities and social-science disciplines (literature, sociology, philosophy, etc.)?

Well, it’s a very seductive idea because it lends itself to no end of impressive sounding “just so” stories, which provide seemingly simple explanations to complex questions and problems. I tried to find some of the most absurd examples of such “just so” stories in the book, such as a philosopher who claimed that Henry VIII’s break with the pope and the emergence of Anglican theology followed inexorably from the exigencies of English grammar.

One of your central aims in the book is to argue for what you call the Boas-Jakobson principle as a sort of replacement for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s supposed to capture what is salvageable in the idea that language influences thought and perception. Can you briefly explain the principle?

What the anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas explained in the beginning of the twentieth century was that the grammar of each language determines which aspects of experience must be expressed. In the 1950s Roman Jakobson turned Boas’s insight into a pithy maxim: Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, not in what they may convey (for in theory, every thought can be expressed in every language). Languages differ in what types of information they force the speakers to mention when they describe the world. (For example, some languages require you to be more specific about gender than English does, while English requires you to be more specific about tense than some other languages. Some require you to be more specific about color differences, and so on.) And it turns out that if your language routinely obliges you to express certain information whenever you open your mouth; it forces you to pay attention to certain types of information and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not need to be so attentive to. These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.

Do the Australian aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr you describe in your book really only understand spatial arrangements in terms of cardinal direction (north-south, east-west)? Do the egocentric directions of left and right, forward and backward, play no role in their thinking?

Again, the point is not that they cannot understand egocentric coordinates. They didn’t seem to have any problems learning these concepts in English and using them correctly. The real difference lies somewhere else: If you are forced by your language to be aware of the geographic directions at every waking second of your life (because egocentric coordinates are never used for directions), then this habit creates a layer of spatial thinking and memory that “we,” who speak egocentric languages, don’t need to have, and this type of geographic awareness has profound implications for orientation and the perception of space.

You point out that some languages—Hungarian, Finnish, and Vietnamese, for instance—do not mark feminine and masculine genders at all; there are no gendered pronouns like he and she, for instance. Is it plausible, then, that in such languages one’s sex plays a less defining role in others’ conception of oneself, since the language does not require others to think of one as a male or female on every occasion of reference?

This is something we can only speculate about, as I don’t know that it has been studied empirically. I can only answer anecdotally, by pointing out a difference between English and my mother tongue, Hebrew. In Hebrew, there is no sex-neutral word for friend, as there is in English, and for a host of other designations for people. The grammar requires me to specify each time whether the friend is male or female. I know that when I hear the word friend in English, I automatically need to assign it to one of the categories. For me, a friend can never be in a Schrödinger’s cat state of indeterminacy. I know this because it happens quite often that as the conversation continues, my assignment turns out to have been wrong, and then I invariably get a slight shock—and have to replay the conversation and readjust all the information I had been given in the light of the new understanding. Does this happen to English native speakers in the same way and with the same intensity? Or can they sometimes think of friends in a more indeterminate way? If they can do so, then speakers of Hungarian would simply extend the same indeterminacy principle to more contexts. Having said all this, it’s important to realize that one can be a perfectly decent male chauvinist pig even in languages which don’t have any gender distinctions.

What’s the best explanation for Homer’s describing honey as green, oxen as wine-colored, and iron as violet? And why did the natives of Murray Island call the sky black, of all colors!

Well, as for the first question, I can’t explain it better than William Ewart Gladstone did one hundred and fifty years ago: “Colours were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of colour; and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself.” For Homer, the word that ended up meaning “green” meant something like “fresh” or “pale,” and could be applied with perfect sense to fresh and pale looking things of both green and yellow hue. The distinction in hue between yellow and green was not one that seemed very important in his day. Similarly, in many cultures “blue” is just considered a particular shade of black, and finding a particular name for this particular shade is not a very pressing matter, especially as blue material objects (as opposed to the vast nothingness of sky or even the sea) are extremely rare in nature. So it makes perfect sense, if some nagging anthropologist comes to question you about the color of the sky, to use the nearest color on your palette, and say “black.”

Is it fair to say that cognitive scientists have been interested for some time now in the relation between language and cognition? It is, for instance, a topic that is sufficiently mainstream for the Cornell cognitive-science department to offer Language and Cognition as one of its five tracks for undergraduate majors.

From its inception, cognitive science has been closely related with linguistics and of course it has been interested in the relation between language and thought, and in particular, in language as a window into the mind. But cognitive science has also from its inception been dominated by a very particular view of language (one that I don’t entirely share), namely that most fundamental aspects of language and its grammatical rules are innately specified, that they are coded in the genes and prewired in the brain. According to this view, the differences between languages must by necessity be superficial, and hence there is an extremely strong ideological resistance to the idea that different languages can affect their speakers’ minds differently.

In the final chapter of the book, you express much optimism about the deep knowledge we will acquire in linguistics and cognitive psychology in the future. How far are we from that knowledge—from answering the major questions—would you say? Decades? Centuries?

There is a saying: Prophesy is given to the fools. With the current rate of progress, decades seems more likely than centuries. But then again, there are so many breakthroughs that we have been only a decade away from for decades …