Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World, By Guy Deutscher, Heinemann RRP£20, 310 pages

Interactions between language, culture and thought have been an intellectual battleground for centuries. Some authors perceive deep differences between languages, which they believe reflect – and affect – the minds of the people who speak them. Others maintain that linguistic differences are superficial – that when it comes to language all modern humans are essentially equal.

Guy Deutscher, a research fellow at Manchester University, charts a middle way between the extremes. Through the Language Glass is a brilliant account of linguistic research over two centuries. He ranges from William Gladstone, the 19th-century British prime minister and Homeric scholar, puzzling over the lack of colour in The Iliad and The Odyssey, to the latest brain imaging experiments showing how language influences the way we think.

Gladstone’s exhaustive study showed the black-and-white nature of the Homeric world; blues or greens are never mentioned, and Homer’s few colour descriptions often seem off-key. Gladstone set off a vigorous Victorian debate about colour, language and the brain, persuading many contemporary scholars that the lack of colour in Homer and other ancient Greek writers was a manifestation of partial colour-blindness. In keeping with the new enthusiasm for Darwinian thinking, scientists proposed that full colour vision had evolved over the past 2,000 years or so in response to all the new colours of modern civilisation. To support the thesis, they pointed to the lack of colour words in many “primitive” languages around the world.

Today the idea that evolution could proceed so fast, without strong selection pressure, seems absurd, but in the late 19th century it was not so ridiculous. By 1900, however, anthropological studies had finally killed the thesis. Instead it became clear that differences in colour vocabulary reflect cultural rather than biological development. Then, during the early decades of the 20th century, it became fashionable to emphasise the impact of language on thinking and vice versa. For example linguists found tribes whose language apparently had no past tense – and argued that this had a profound impact on the way they thought about time.

As scientists came to realise that such conclusions were wildly exaggerated, the intellectual pendulum swung next to a position where linguistic differences were minimised. This view, still dominant today, was advanced by Noam Chomsky more than 50 years ago. It maintains that universal rules of human grammar are encoded in our genes and variation between languages has no cognitive consequence – a view Deutscher rejects.

The standard refrain of current linguistics textbooks is that “all languages are equally complex”. In fact languages vary markedly in complexity. In general small, illiterate societies have languages with smaller vocabularies but more complex grammatical structures. Such differences can affect the way people think, Deutscher shows.

The Guugu Yimithirr of Queensland, Australia, for example, describe directions entirely in “geocentric” terms – north, south, east and west – rather than our “egocentric” left, right, front and back. This gives them an amazing sense of cardinal directions.

Through the Language Glass finishes as it begins, with colours. The visible spectrum is a continuum, which can be divided up in any number of ways. The latest brain scanning experiments confirm that its linguistic division affects the way people experience colour. If a language distinguishes between two colours, as Russian does for example between dark and light blue, then its speakers experience more of a difference between them than people whose language uses the same word for both.

As befits a book about language, this inspiring amalgam of cultural history and science is beautifully written.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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