Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

I purchased this book on a linguistics nerd whim. Yes, I did. Deal with it.

I won’t say too much about it, only because I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It’s for people who are specifically interested in linguistics, by a guy who thinks that most people like linguistics. (Hint: Not all people like linguistics. It’s fine. Not all people like math, either.)

The topics covered in the book definitely get you thinking, and they’re definitely the book’s major attraction. Have you ever thought about how people perceive the world in other languages? And if their languages affects certain aspects of their lives? I hadn’t really thought about it until I read this book, so that’s a start. Some languages lump together color words, for example, so they might have a tough time distinguishing between what we see as blue and green, two colors, because they call them both by a single name. And yet, others distinguish between the two colors but call them by the same name anyway. Another example has to do with gender; Romance languages put male and female articles and suffixes on nouns, like “la manzana” in Spanish or “der tisch” in German. These speakers might subconsciously associate these objects, an apple and a table, with females and males, respectively, because of the article associated with them. We don’t think about this stuff in English, because our language is royally fucked up, but it’s fascinating as shit.

The author, Guy Deutscher, goes about investigating his topic, however, in a sort of self-satisfied, literary, overtly clever way. It’s a little obnoxious, and frankly I think all the prosey writing distracts from the extensive and interesting research that he did. He uses a lot of wordplay, a lot of unnecessary metaphors (“This constant drilling affects the associations that speakers develop about inanimate objects and can clothe their notions of such objects in womanly or manly traits,” p. 214) and a lot of sore-thumb vocabulary words (“nexus,” also on p. 214; it’s a phone now, Guy!). But I don’t necessarily want to discourage those with general curiosity about this topic not to read it, or linguistics people to tear it apart either. I think Deutscher intended for the book to take a specific subject and give it a better flow on the page, and for that he can be commended. I just wouldn’t go so far as to say that he completely illuminates the topic; most of the good stuff is buried underneath too-long paragraphs. Next time, maybe?

Notable pages, by the way, in case you do decide to read: 175 & 191. Not going to quote them this time; it’s up to you!