Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review: Through the Language Glass

Announcements: For anyone who still follows this blog, I should probably mention in a more official capacity that I don't really update anymore (in case you hadn't noticed). I am no longer in linguistics and though my 6 years in the field leaves me with significant interest, I no longer devote significant time to this blog. I still plan to post occasionally, but it will probably be mostly reviews like this one rather than more standard blog posts. If for some reason you are interested in reading more of my writing, feel free to check out my new (technology/science) blog Less Than Twelve Parsecs over on Wordpress.

Disclaimer: I was sent a free review copy of this book.

OK, the blog post:

The basic idea of this book ("Through the Language Glass: Why the world looks different in other languages" by Guy Deutscher) is to examine the premise that the language we speak influences how we interpret the world. The primary approach throughout is an analysis of how languages describe color. I've found that many people aren't really interested in color terms cross-linguistically because they assume that such analysis is merely providing translations. Of course (and as this book points out), languages in fact vary widely in how many color terms they have. Blackfoot has one word for blue/green, while Arabic has completely separate words for dark blue and light blue. I found the first half of this book to be the most compelling, providing a lot of history about how philologists and then linguists approached the question of color across cultures. These approaches began as mostly racist caricatures and progressed to the seminal Berlin & Kay work that established a (mostly) definite order of color acquisition that with very few exceptions predicts which color terms a language will have based on its number of colors terms. A language with just two colors will divide them into dark and light, and a language with three colors will always have red as the third color. (While there are exceptions to some of the predictions, the one just stated is as far as I know exceptionless. I would be very interested if anyone knows of any exceptions -- languages with only three basic color terms that do not include red as one of the color terms.) This part of the book is written clearly enough and provides enough helpful examples that I actually used it in my own teaching several times, as a content unit about colors for ESL classes.

On a more negative note, Chapter 5 of this book almost made me put it down for good. The author takes an entire chapter to essentially deconstruct the widely held linguistic notion that all languages are "equally complex". He even goes so far as to say that though he disagrees both with the popular notion that "primitive people speak primitive languages" and with the linguistics teaching that all language are equally complex, "linguists have fallen into the more serious error". Let me say that again: he disagrees that lesser-spoken languages are primitive, and he also disagrees that all language are equal, but he says that it's better to believe that lesser-spoken languages are primitive. Now, I doubt the author would agree with what I've just said if pressed, but it is literally the logically inescapable conclusion of that last sentence. While I might agree that we should strive to be utterly scientific (and saying something sweeping like "all languages are equally complex" is not very provable or scientific), I think it's even more important to think about the negative ramifications of things that we say. The saying that all language are equally complex arose because people used linguistic analysis as a racist tool to denigrate and victimize indigenous peoples. Don Frantz once related a story where when he told a local shop owner that he was studying the Blackfoot language, the owner told him that the Blackfeet did not have a language, "just a bunch of grunts". This is history; this is popular thinking, and to seek to make purely scientific statements while ignoring the destruction and victimization of indigenous peoples is careless at best and hateful at worst.  Certainly the author is correct that we need to specify complexity and offer controlled cross-linguistic studies, but even so I shy away from abandoning completely the maxim that languages are equally complex.  Languages ARE "equally complex" in the sense that they are all capable of communicating the same information.  This is the sense in which the maxim is usually meant in linguistics, not in the sense the author denigrates, that all languages are identical in the complexity of their phonology, morphology, and syntax.  Such an interpretation is nothing but a straw man argument that nobody would defend.  The author concludes by arguing that in fact "simple" societies have more complex languages, alluding to shared context enabling greater complexity without confusion.  Of course, in English, "simple" has come to be a word with negative connotations, and talking about "simple" societies or "simple" languages is an inherent judgment, whether we like it or not, just because of the meaning of the word in modern English.  

I was really disappointed in that one chapter, but once I got through it, I did enjoy the rest of the book.  That last part of the book finally delves into the science that I was perhaps most interested in from the start, comparing how languages use color terms and offering numerous summaries of experiments showing that how a language divides up colors can influence how quickly speakers perceive differences between colors.  The author's most compelling point is that while language does not dictate what we can express or what we think, the patterns of language do force us to focus on different things in different languages.  These patterns mean that speakers of Guugu Timithirr have a much better sense of direction that English speakers -- not because their language makes it impossible for them to think in egocentric directional terms, but because their language requires that they identify position based on cardinal directions.  The book also includes a section about gender in language, which, while providing some interested data, is in my view little more than a good way to introduce the idea that how we speak can influence how we think about things.  The last part of the book wraps up with a good (and at least for me, eye-opening) summary of the evolution of color vision, which is certainly relevant to the points brought up in the book.

TL;DR: I hesitate to recommend this book just because of my own violent allergy to any suggestion that languages are not equal.  Languages are of course very different, but I think any suggestion of inequality will only enforce in the minds of many the idea that "primitive people speak primitive languages".  I am not swayed by the author's assertion that because languages differ in the complexity of their phonology, morphology, and syntax, this means that it is a mortal sin to claim that languages are equally complex.  That being said, I found the other sections of this book not only readable but eminently informative and interesting.  There is much to be learned here, both about the history of research into color terms and analysis of cross-linguistic color terms themselves.