Monday, May 23, 2011

Guy Deutscher's pop linguistics - a review-like post

Ignorant of linguistics, I followed the recommendation of Language Hat, and the prodding of a couple of my commenters, and read Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010) by Guy Deutscher.   The subtitle is not accurate, or is mostly inaccurate.  The book is primarily about how the world does not look different in other languages in any significant way, except when it occasionally does.

Deutscher’s method is to trace the intellectual history of a particular linguistic theory.  An example:

1.  Homer makes strange use of colors, or so observes William Gladstone in 1858.  Honey is green; sheep are violet.  Nothing is blue.  Therefore Homer saw honey as green, and could not see the color blue.  His eyes, and those of the Ancient Greeks, were different than ours.

2.  Primitive languages generally lack the color blue, and perhaps also, green, yellow, etc.  The primitive people who speak those languages cannot see those colors.  They are at an earlier evolutionary stage.

3.  Hey, there, 19th century anthropologists, I’m not so comfortable with that word “primitive,” plus it turns out everyone can tell blue from other colors whether they have a word for it or not.  Linguistic differences in color words are therefore cultural artifacts, curious but entirely without meaning.

4.  Well, perhaps not entirely without meaning.  The color vocabulary of our language does seem to have some minor effect on our perception of the world around us.

Substitute, for color, grammar or spatial language or gendered nouns and repeat.  Discovery, reaction, wild overreaction in the opposite direction, small retreat from the overreaction, which is where we are today.  Deutscher did not convince me that today’s frontier linguistics research has uncovered any mighty discoveries, but he provides a number of cautionary tales about sealing off a research path for political or cultural reasons, so I should consider myself cautioned, as well.

The best part of a pop social science book like this one is the range of strange facts that provide evidence for one or another theory.  The Australian speakers of Guugu Yimithirr do not distinguish between right and left or other directions that relate to their own position (like “egocentric” English), but use compass directions.  The television is not in front of me, but to the north; the character on screen is not walking toward me, but walking south.

Speakers of the Peruvian Amazon language Matses distinguish between not just the past and the present, but the recent past, distant past, and remote past, and also require the speaker to specify how he knows what he is saying, and most amazingly, when he learned it.    Wild pigs passed by (long ago,  which I found out recently by direct observation).  Everything in the parentheses is contained in the verb conjugation.  As Deutscher points out, the difference is not what speakers of English and Matses can say, but rather what they have to say.

Absolutely fascinating stuff, written by Deutscher with vigor and humor, even, perhaps too often, sarcasm.  I now consider myself slightly less ignorant.


  1. Hi A.R.

    Linguists should not practice philosophy. They seem to have a naive linguistic idealism with regard to the nature of reality. They find it easy to go from saying, “if the Greeks did not have a word for blue, then they did not see the color blue”.

    As a linguistic claim that the ancient Greeks did not ‘see’ the color blue within their conceptual framework in the same way that we ‘see’ the color blue within our conceptual framework, this claim makes some sense. It’s a statement about language. But this is also an empirical claim and a statement about the nature of reality. The last two claims are unjustified and I think ridiculous.

    Empirical claim.

    There is no doubt in my mind that if you showed an ancient Greek a sky blue color sample and told him to go into the next room and bring back the urn of the same color, the Greek could do it.

    Also, there are some primitive languages which only have three numbers: one, two, and more-than-two. Does this mean that these natives can not ‘see’ a difference between 4 items and 40 items? Of course not! I could show such a native five stones and tell him to bring back that many ears of corn from the field. He could do this perfectly well. He might even take the five stones with him, as in fact did happen in some primates societies. These ‘counting’ stones are quite common in some archeological digs.

    Language is a factor of what is useful and what is needed. Before we developed artificial dyes, the world was a very drab place. When almost nothing you see is blue, how important is it to have a word for blue? Even in such a blueless world, I could always say of a unusual color I saw, “It was the color of the sky”. I would not need a word for blue.

    When linguists talk about language they might be worth listening to; however, when they claim that language itself determines the nature of reality, then they should restrict their discourse to other linguists.


  2. Vince, you're summarizing the first half of Deutscher's book!

    Gladstone's argument is from 1858. The last chapter of Deutscher's book is titled "Forgive Us Our Ignorances" - please, forgive those 19th century linguists and anthropologists their ignorances. They were doing the best they could.

  3. Linguists should absolutely practice philosophy—because they have to—and they should be educated enough in the area to do so. Of course, that doesn't mean they should buy into ridiculous overblown versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is what is at question here. I think I'd argue that better philosophical training could solve problems like that!

    (Of course, it's typically "philosophers" [at least, in the "cultural analysis"/"theory" sense of the word] who I read "claim[ing] that language itself determines the nature of reality," and they're doing so based on linguistics, a field in which they are hopelessly out of date. But I digress.)

    I'm not actually familiar with this particular book, but it sounds like a good one, and of course Language Hat is a highly reliable source of such recommendations. One of my favorite recent Sapir-Whorf-head-desk moments (TM) came up on Language Log in relation to the Three Cups of Tea debacle last month.

  4. Here's one of those nonsensical pseudo-ThomasLovePeacockian dialogues I wrote a few years ago on this subject. Really, I could have saved twentieth-century thought so much bother!

  5. I fear that we all, linguists or otherwise, have to practice philosophy whether we want to or not, as a condition of thinking. Anyway, Vince does not actually want specialists to stay in their niche - otherwise, where would the hapless Amateur Reader, or the Philosopher of Romance, find himself? Nowhere.

    I'm not sure who is supposed to be practicing philosophy here, though. Gladstone (who was mostly practising being Prime Minister of England) and other 19th century researchers were working on the idea that the ancient Greeks and contemporary Pacific Islanders had eyes that literally functioned differently than the eyes of Europeans. This was not philosophy, but (mistaken) biology.

    That Mortensen business is amazing, actually, just amazing. The Deutscher book has a good history in its second half of the rise, decline, and smash of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    obooki - this is the stuff you keep in reserve? I'm vaguely depressed - what I put up, that's all I got!

  6. Hrm. I wonder if this is another example of the type of arguments that Literary Darwinists are making (see cognitive science; literary theory). I feel like I'm just asking, yes that's all very well, but how does Deutscher's research affect my work? And perhaps that's all I am asking. But all this pop-linguistic/philosophy/sociology/cognitive science seems to be symptomatic of a larger cultural question: are we unique? It seems to me the answer is no.

  7. I don't think your question, or answer, is so far off from what Deutscher is arguing.

    I have read a bit of Brian Boyd's work on literature and evolution and do not understand it, so I will have to punt on that particular topic.

    But: how does this affect your work. Two ways.

    1. Deutscher's histories of ideas provide instructive models for any form of scholarship. Mostly negative models - beware of ideologies and fixed ideas. Still, they might prompt any scholar to wonder about what he might be missing in his own field.

    2. Deutscher describes some interesting recent research on language and memory, how certain patterns are (perhaps) easier to remember if they have some resemblance to an already existing pattern in language. Literature, poetry most forcefully, is very much about using language to create new patterns. I wonder if there is an interesting idea to pursue here, linking the "memorable" in literature - images, rhymes, whatever - back to properties of language.

    Just sort of thinking out loud here. The contemporary "discoveries" Deutscher describes are, frankly, not earth-shaking, but more at the "nuance" level.

  8. Anna:
    “I feel like I'm just asking, yes that's all very well, but how does Deutscher's research affect my work?”

    “The contemporary "discoveries" Deutscher describes are, frankly, not earth-shaking, but more at the "nuance" level.”

    The two statements above illustrate a problem with philosophy that is not much talked about. Philosophers like to make dramatic, earth shaking, statements which sound profound and get a lot of attention. However, what they mean is not what the listener has a right to expect the words to mean.

    For example: consider a radical idealist who posits that only two things actually exist: ideas and perceivers of ideas. Further, the material world (and thus matter itself) does not exist.

    In order for a philosopher to make this claim palatable, a claim which is both anti-common sense and contrary to empirical evidence, he will provide a 300 to 500 page redefinition of the terms he is using plus the conceptual framework in which those terms are to be understood. His ‘work’ will thus allow his theory to withstand initial philosophical assaults.

    However, when you ‘unpack’ his meaning and give it a real world ‘cash-value’, there is very little there.

    Ask the idealist this: if a blind person, who has never seen a chair and has no word for ‘chair’ in his primative language, (he’s from the Amazon) walks into a room with a chair at the entry, will the chair be there and will it trip him.

    In this example no one is perceiving the chair so how could it be there? How did the chair get an independent existence away from a perceiver?

    Bishop Berkeley would say that God was perceiving the chair. So instead of ‘matter’ we substitute ‘God’.

    If you ask the idealist how his views change the world we actually live in, he’d say, “it doesn’t change anything. Everything stays the same. The laws of nature still apply. Object still have weight. But here’s the important point: the world as we know it can be described and understood perfectly well without the need of ‘material existence’ or ‘matter’. Nothing actually changes in our lives. That’s the problem. So much of 'profound' philosophy makes no difference.

    Oddly, the idealists may prove to be right! As subatomic particles get smaller and smaller, and as some physicists now claim that there are uncaused events at the subatomic level, it’s possible that, as part of a unified theory, neither matter nor energy exist! That in reality, matter and energy are just symptoms of an underlying phenomenon which is nether matter nor energy. A unified theory might actually be able to empirically prove this!

    Often when you 'unpack' a philosophical assertion, there is very little ‘there’, there. This has actually alienated some philosophers to the point where there seems to be a major emphasis now on proving that the failings of language itself, as a philosophic tool, are so insidious that knowledge itself is not possible.

    A lot of philosophy is devoted to showing the philosophy is not possible. Countering this trend is a fledgling new field of ‘experimental philosophy’ as distinct from ‘experimental psychology’.

    ‘Experimental philosophy’ is hard for me to grasp. The history of philosophy has demonstrated over and over that when a subject of philosophy becomes verifiable by experience and experiments, the subject is ‘kicked out’ of philosophy and becomes a stand alone science like: physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and all the other subjects that were once studied as ‘natural philosophy’.

    I think this trend of making bold statements and then taking almost all of it back in the ‘footnotes’ is prevalent in other 'over- intellectualized' fields.

    Our best hope is often with the amateurs.


  9. On a lighter note, if we just give those "primitives" J Crew catalogs they'd have more names for colors than there are actual colors ;)

  10. "Experimental philosophy" is a puzzler, isn't it? I wish them luck, but like you, I have doubts.

    Stefanie, the J Crew catalog idea is pretty close to many of the actual color identification experiments anthropologists have done for over a century. Show a group of people a wide range of colors and shades, the whole J Crew range, and then see what has its own name and at what point in the spectrum red turns into pink and so on. The first testing set used little numbered skeins of yarn - Deutscher includes a photograph of it.

  11. Vince-

    Thank you for taking the time to explain the intellectual stakes of philosophic arguments-I'm often left speechless and confused when greeted with them, and your definition certainly helps. I too am confused by experimental philosophy, but engaging in conversations such as this makes me feel less alone in my endeavor to unpack (I can't break away yet from that term!) it.