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Through the Language Glass

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created Newspeak, a language constructed to render its speakers incapable of articulating any idea contrary to the dogma of the ruling party. The implication behind Orwell’s creation is that the language you speak controls the way in which you think, limiting the concepts you’re able to understand.

The cover of the UK hardback edition of Guy Deutscher's book
The covers of (above) the UK and (below) the US edition.
The cover of the US hardback edition of Guy Deutscher's book

Guy Deutscher’s thesis is that it was wrong to dismiss the ideas of Edward Sapir, in particular that a person’s native language can affect the workings of his mind. Some researchers argue against Noam Chomsky’s theory that we are born with a genetic template that allows us to learn language and that therefore all languages must be alike at a deep level. Instead, the hypothesis is gaining ground that infants’ brains are mouldable and that early in life they generate the structures they need in order to understand language. This might mean that speakers of different languages do indeed view the world differently. The idea that our interpretation of the world may be influenced, albeit subtly, by the language we learn as infants is becoming more widely accepted through recent rsearch into language diversity, supported by neurological experiments.

Many of these experiments have involved colour perception and Guy Deutscher starts his exploration with this aspect. Many societies have a curious lack of colour words, often limited to black, white and red, where the first two are used generally for dark and light colours respectively. Their speakers have perfect colour vision, but in the environment in which they live they don’t need colour descriptions that are more complex. The reverse of the Sapir-Whorf view is therefore certainly true — that one’s environment and culture control one’s language. Recent research has demonstrated, however, that colour concepts in one’s mother tongue do interfere subtly with the way the brain processes colour.

Another major theme in Deutscher’s book is the way that languages describe directions. Most use schemes related to the observer (“turn left at the traffic lights and take the third turning on your right”). A few languages, however, use absolute directions, including Guugu Yimithirr of Australia (famous as being the source of the word kangaroo). Speakers might warn you that a stinging ant was “north of your foot” or say that they left something “on the southern edge of the western table” in a room. Their scheme is appropriate for a group living in open country with few natural or human-made landmarks, but in our more complex civilisations the relational one works better. The Guugu Yimithirr method requires its speakers to acquire an absolute sense of direction, a marvel to the rest of us who don’t possess it and a strong indication that language does indeed in some cases modify thought.

Deutscher argues that the key to differences between languages is a contained in a maxim of the linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” As an example, he quotes the English statement, “I spent last night with a neighbour”, in which we may keep private whether the person was male or female. In French there is no such privilege: one must say voisin or voisine.

This is a most entertaining book, easy to read but packed with fascinating detail.

[Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World; published by William Heinemann in the UK on 3 June and in the US by Metropolitan Books on 31 August; hardback, pp310, index; ISBN 978-0-434-016900-7 (UK), 978-0-8050-8195-4 (US); publishers’ list prices £20.00 (UK), $27.50 (US).]

Page created 17 Jul. 2010

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