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20201206 – Through the Language Glass



The main idea of this book is to present history and contemporary state of understanding of linguistics and language influence not only on communications between people, but also on human thinking and understanding of the world.


PROLOGUE: Language, Culture, and Thought
Author starts with the statement that languages are different in their usefulness: “There are four tongues worthy of the world’s use,” says the Talmud: “Greek for song, Latin for war, Syriac for lamentation, and Hebrew for ordinary speech.” Then he proceeds to present examples of these differences for some European languages. After that author defines objective of these book:” In the pages to follow, however, I will try to convince you, probably against your initial intuition, and certainly against the fashionable academic view of today, that the answer to the questions above is—yes. In this plaidoyer for culture, I will argue that cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.”

1. Naming the Rainbow
Here author discusses work of Gladstone on Homer and how colors were presented in Odyssey via analogies rather than via direct designation. Here are 5 main points:

The author presents Gladstone’s idea that sencitivity to color developed only recently in history. This correlates with the fact that words for different colors are created over the time and in more or less similar sequence in different languages.

2. A Long-Wave Herring
In this chapter retells the story of Lazarus Geiger who expanded on Gladstone ideas:” Mankind’s perception of color, he says, increased “according to the schema of the color spectrum”: first came the sensitivity to red, then to yellow, then to green, and only finally to blue and violet. The most remarkable thing about it all, he adds, is that this development seems to have occurred in exactly the same order in different cultures all over the world.”

This followed by discussion of reasons for that: whether it was physiological development of human vision or linguistic development. Two directions were competing: Lamarckian promoted by Hugo Magnus and Darwinian.  For the letter author cites Franz Delitzsch who wrote in 1878 that “we see in essence not with two eyes but with three: with the two eyes of the body and with the eye of the mind that is behind them. And it is in this eye of the mind in which the cultural-historical progressive development of the color sense takes place.”

3. The Rude Populations Inhabiting Foreign Lands
Here author reviews result of explosion of anthropological research at the end of XIX century. He looks at research and experiments of W.H.R. Rivers who worked with tribes in New Guinea and convincingly demonstrated that local have the same color vision as Europeans, even if their languages did not have specific words for many colors.  

4. Those Who Said Our Things Before Us

Here author first pontificates on development of anthropology from contempt to savages to nearly worshipping them or at least claiming that all cultures are equal. Then he discusses and important book from 1969 by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay and their finding: “What were those two amazing findings? First, Berlin and Kay discovered that color terms were not so arbitrary after all. Although there are considerable variations between the color systems of different languages, some ways of dividing the spectrum are still far more natural than others: some are adopted by many unrelated languages while others are not adopted by any. It was their second discovery, however, that left the academic community reeling. This was the revelation, which Berlin and Kay themselves termed a “totally unexpected finding,” that languages acquire the names for colors in a predictable order. To be more precise, Berlin and Kay discovered the sequence that Lazarus Geiger had postulated 101 years before and that in Magnus’s hands turned into the subject of intense and protracted debate in the last decades of the nineteenth century.”

At the end of chapter author presents his conclusion:” Different cultures certainly are not at liberty to carve up the world entirely at whim, as they are bound by the constraints set by nature—both the nature of the human brain and the nature of the world outside. The more decisive nature has been in staking out its boundaries, the less leeway there is for culture.” He also briefly discusses theory of parameters and points our that diversity of languages and methods of their use is way too wide to cover it with a few parameters.

5. Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd
In the last chapter of this part author makes a very reasonable point that there are no primitive languages as there are no primitive people. There is poor understanding of other people’s environment and consequently complexities of languages that allow survival in this environment, which makes it very difficult for outside observer to understand these complexities. However, it does not mean that all languages equally complex. As everything else languages evolutionary developed to meet communication requirements for survival. Then author provides brief comparative analysis of features of various languages: Morphology, Sound System, and Subordination. At the end of chapter author presents his conclusion:” The results of this research have already revealed some significant statistical correlations. Some of these, such as the tendency of smaller societies to have more complex word structure, may seem surprising at first sight, but look plausible on closer examination. Other connections, such as the greater reliance on subordination in complex societies, still require detailed statistical surveys, but nevertheless seem intuitively convincing. And finally, the relation between the complexity of the sound system and the structure of society awaits a satisfactory explanation.”

6. Crying Whorf
Here author briefly retells the story of rise and fall of theory of linguistic relativity promoted by Edward Sapir. Author starts with overall history of linguistics in Europe, specifically paying attention to work of Wilhelm Humboldt, details of Sapir’s relativity, and finally works of Franz Boas and Roman Jacobson. The main understanding is that all languages allow express any thought, but:” If different languages influence their speakers’ minds in varying ways, this is not because of what each language allows people to think but rather because of the kinds of information each language habitually obliges people to think about. When a language forces its speakers to pay attention to certain aspects of the world each time, they open their mouths or prick up their ears, such habits of speech can eventually settle into habits of mind with consequences for memory, or perception, or associations, or even practical skills.”  Author provides a few very interesting examples to demonstrate this point.

7. Where the Sun Doesn’t Rise in the East
Here author presents a number of linguistic curiosities from misunderstanding of naming kangaroo to use of egocentric vs. geocentric coordinates in speech by some aboriginal tribes in Australia. Author provides interesting example of object manipulation when the same change expressed differently in different languages. This raised another question: correlation and/or causation of spatial thinking depending of linguistic coordinates.

8. Sex and Syntax
In this chapter author explores another linguistic curiosity: use of sex in designation of non-animate objects. As example author uses poem of Heine when pine tree (male) dreams about palm tree(female), which is difficult to translate into English in which trees do not have sex. Author them provides charming example of similar confusion, especially between languages with different sex designation for the same object.

9. Russian Blues
Here author returns to linguistic division of color spectrum which is different in different languages, for example Russian using 2 blue colors.

EPILOGUE: Forgive Us Our Ignorance

In summary author repeat his main point:” Language has two lives. In its public role, it is a system of conventions agreed upon by a speech community for the purpose of effective communication. But language also has another, private existence, as a system of knowledge that each speaker has internalized in his or her own mind. If language is to serve as an effective means of communication, then the private systems of knowledge in speakers’ minds must closely correspond with the public system of linguistic conventions. And it is because of this correspondence that the public conventions of language can mirror what goes on in the most fascinating and most elusive object in the entire universe, our mind. 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.”


I like ideas presented in this book and I agree that language has serious impact on the way of person’s thinking. However, I believe that author slightly overstating this case. I think that language is only one part of overall cultural environment that has impact and not necessarily the most important. My own experience of being native Russian speaker and nearly completely switching to English in midlife definitely was accompanied by switch in way of thinking about quite a few things. It is, however, all but impossible to separate changes caused by switch of language from changes causes by behavior of surrounding people, communications with them, and overall cultural environment of America, which is quite different from USSR. Nevertheless, I would assign to language lower level of causality in thinking and behavior changes comparing to logic of interactions and methods of setting and achieving objectives, which are quite different in these different cultures.

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