RVC recently told me about Through the Language Glass, a book by Guy Deutscher (GD), an Israeli linguist, that is based around the premise of ‘linguistic relativity’. Ordinarily, hearing those two words together evokes a bit of a fight / flight response in me, so I read the excerpts he sent with some trepidation. I realized that, far from being yet another piece fawning over linguistic relativity, this book actually seemed to be addressing many questions I had about this topic but had never seen properly answered.

Guy Deutscher’s primary thesis in this book is that the truth about the influence of language on thought or cognition must lie between the two extremes between which linguistic opinion about this topic has swung over the past century. Now, Guy knows he’s going against the tide here, and he goes out of his way to convince his readers that he is not, erm, a crackpot. What results is a book that manages to introduce to the reader some of the saner aspects of the concept of linguistic relativity while also being thoroughly entertaining to read. It’s filled with a lot of cheeky humor that sometimes borders on the irreverent.

In their pronouncements on language, culture, and thought, it seems that big thinkers in their grandes œuvres have not always risen much above little thinkers over their hors d’œuvre.

Deutscher starts with a brief review of the kind of things people have talked about languages and their influence on thought and culture and how they give insights into the minds of the people that speak them. This is despite the fact that some of the fundamental questions of the field are fairly reasonable to ask—

Could language have more than a passive role as a reflection of cultural differences and be an active instrument of coercion through which culture imposes its conventions on our mind? Do different languages lead their speakers to different perceptions? Is our particular language a lens through which we view the world?

He rightly calls most of this ‘outrageous legacy’ out for what it is, and criticizes it for driving the whole field to a point where no one will take it seriously—

The reason why the topic causes such intense embarrassment is that it carries with it a baggage of intellectual history which is so disgraceful that the mere suspicion of association with it can immediately brand anyone a fraud. The problem is that any influence of language on thought is very difficult to prove or disprove empirically, so that the subject has traditionally afforded a perfect platform to those who enjoy flashing their fantasies without the least danger of being caught out by the fact police.

The first third of this book deals with color terms across languages and millennia. Turns out that when we read books such as Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, the depiction of color terms tends to be, erm, unusual. There is a conspicuous absence of color terms in otherwise very vivid sensory imagery, and the color terms that are there can sound a bit baffling to today’s reader. The sea is described as wine-like, for example. Some people proposed that the ability to see color itself seemed to have evolved over the last couple of thousand years, and that the people of those times genuinely didn’t perceive colors the way we do now. Think of it like them seeing everything with the saturation slider close to zero, so everything was different shades of light or dark and the hue didn’t matter as much. He spends a lot of pages exploring this idea, and later discussing how it was debunked. This part of the book is kind of like an informally written review paper.

The discussion here is interesting, but it’s also kinda anti-climactic. So we know that there is a certain vague sequence (always black, white, followed by red, followed by others) in how languages pick up color words, but we’re also fairly sure that we’ve been able to perceive color differences all this while, but there doesn’t seem to be any cogent explanation of why something as fundamental as color terminology took so much longer to emerge out.

Popular depiction of the speech of tribal people or societies that are otherwise considered primitive shows them as speaking either ‘primitive’ English (me no speak, want fruit, go go go no come) or some simplistic sounding language deliberately made to sound ridiculous (hoolaa hoolaa mungobaba). Ask any linguist, though, and they will tell you—’All languages are equally complex’.

Now, we have no evidence to believe that any of the 6000-ish languages spoken by humans across the world are what you would consider primitive. So, the average-joe depiction I talked about above does seem clearly incorrect, but there’s a huge leap of logic between that and the assertion that all languages are equally complex (ALEC). Do we have reason to conclude that the ALEC principle is indeed true? You’d certainly think so, if you were to open any introductory linguistic textbook, or chat with the average linguist over drinks—

This battle cry is one of the most oft avowed doctrines of the modern discipline of linguistics. For decades, it has been professed from lecterns across the globe, proclaimed in introductory textbooks, and preached at any opportunity to the general public.

But GD says he has looked for over 15 years for a source that explains this ‘spectacular discovery’ that has now become an oft-peddled claim in the field of linguistics, but he has failed to find one—

As it happens, the dogma of equal complexity is based on no evidence whatsoever. No one has ever measured the overall complexity of even one single language, not to mention all of them. […] The equal complexity slogan is just a myth, an urban legend that linguists repeat because they have heard other linguists repeat it before them, having in turn heard others repeat it earlier.

Other than the obvious difficulty of defining and evaluating the complexity of a language in a meaningful way, there doesn’t even seem to be any prima facie reason to believe that all languages are (or need to be) equally complex. He goes on to talk a bit more about this, and eventually concludes that—

The alleged central finding of the discipline is nothing more than a hollow mouthful of air, since in the absence of a definition for the overall complexity of a language, the statement that “all languages are equally complex” makes about as much sense as the assertion that “all languages are equally cornflakes.”

He then moves on to Sapir and Whorf. Whorf’s whole spiel about our language fundamentally constraining what we can understand or express was obviously hokum, and brought the field to what GD calls an intellectual nadir, but perhaps there’s some useful cargo we can salvage from this academic train wreck?

Today, any mention of linguistic relativity will make most linguists shift uneasily in their chairs, and “Whorfianism” has largely become an intellectual tax haven for mystical philosophers, fantasists, and postmodern charlatans.

In comes the Boas-Jakobson principle. Instead of obsessing over what a language allows its speakers to express (anything and everything), we could focus on what it obliges its speakers to express. For eg. English speakers can often equivocate about the gender of a person (I spent yesterday evening with a friend) but have no choice but to convey that said time was spent in the past, whereas Chinese does not oblige its speakers to do that. If you think the burden English places on you is high, be thankful that you don’t have to learn the language of the Matses, a tribe living in the Amazonian rainforest—

To start with, there are three degrees of pastness in Matses: you cannot just say that someone “passed by there”; you have to specify with different verbal endings whether this action took place in the recent past, distant past, or remote past. In addition, the verb has a system of distinctions that linguists call “evidentiality,” and as it happens, the Matses system of evidentiality is the most elaborate that has ever been reported for any language. Whenever Matses speakers use a verb, they are obliged to specify—like the finickiest of lawyers—exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. The Matses, in other words, have to be master epistemologists. […]

[Edited to remove parenthetical examples]

The rest of the book goes into a bit of depth about a few specific instances of this. There’s a lot of discussion about the spatial sense of people whose language forces them to use cardinal directions (N, S, E, W) at all times instead of relative positions such as left, right, front or behind. There’s another segment where he talks about a study where people had to spot which disc out of a bunch of discs had a different shade of blue on it. In general, the time taken by people to spot the difference depended on the degree of the difference (which is expected), but in case of Russian speakers who have different distinct words for a light and dark shade of blue, it also depended on whether both the shades were in the same color category or on opposite ones.

All in all, I found this to be an interesting read. There are not too many ‘answers’, so to speak, but it does manage to raise lots of questions. Oh, and if you have any insight into any of the things I wrote above, do add a comment!