Through the Language Glass
by Guy Deutscher. Metropolitan Books (Macmillan), 2010
Do we see the world differently depending on which language we speak? In the 19th century researchers assumed that people were unable to grasp concepts if there were no words in their language to describe them. This idea was largely debunked, however, in the late 20th century, when linguists concluded that it is possible to describe any concept in any language, given enough effort and time. But as Guy Deutscher argues in his new book, our mother tongue may still shape our worldviews, not because of what its speakers are able to express but because of what its speakers are forced to express.
Although Deutscher’s book starts slowly—the first half is more history than current science—the pace picks up as he describes intriguing linguistic idiosyncrasies and explains their potential effects on cognition. For one thing, linguistic rules influence how much information a person must convey. In English, you might be able to discreetly tell a friend that you “spent the evening with your neighbor,” and you aren’t forced to reveal whether this neighbor happened to be a man or a woman. The French and Spanish languages, however, as well as others, including German and Russian, have different words for “female neighbor” and “male neighbor,” so linguistic convention would require you to reveal that potentially interesting detail.
Guugu Yimithirr, an Aboriginal Australian language, requires speakers to develop a nearly perfect sense of direction. In its conventions, instead of right, left, front and back, a constant, almost intuitive knowledge of north, south, east and west is used to convey all spatial information. You might be warned about “the ant to the north of your foot” or told that “the fish is sold in the northeast corner of the store.” Deutscher argues that this compasslike sense of direction affects memory and perception. For instance, if two identical photographs are placed side by side, English and Guugu Yimithirr speakers will say they look the same. But if one photograph is rotated 90 degrees to the left and the other is rotated 90 degrees to the right, the Guugu Yimithirr speaker will no longer view them as identical, because the objects they portray are facing entirely different directions. “Two realities that for us can look identical will appear different to them,” Deutscher writes.
Finally, the words that a particular language uses to describe colors can affect visual perception. As Deutscher explains, studies suggest that people can see a difference between colors that have different names more quickly than they can detect a difference between two shades of the same color. Ultimately, Deutscher admits, it’s unclear exactly how strongly these—or other as yet undiscovered—habits of speech might affect us. But language may well be another lens distorting our view of the world.