Monday, September 13, 2010

Through the Language Glass (Part 1)

The publisher Henry Holt and Company was kind enough to send me a review copy of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages which bills itself as "demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial" but which also goes beyond that and purports to demonstrate that language affects thought, if only via habits of mind.

This is part one of a two part review. I expect to post Part 2 next Monday, Sept. 20th. My division into two reviews follows the book's own division:
  • Part 1: The Language Mirror (pages 1-126)
  • Part 2: The Language Lens (129-249)
Part 1: The Language Mirror

The general goal of the first part of the book is to establish that language does in fact reflect culture; that it is a mirror in some non-trivial ways of the culture of the speakers. However, Deutscher begins the book by clearly debunking many tired canards about specific languages reflecting crude stereotypes about its speakers. Is French really the most logical language, as my PhD advisor was fond of jokingly claiming? No, it is not (sorry JP, haha).

Overall, Deutscher is a clear and enjoyable writer to read. He does a good job of reviewing basic, but important facts about language and linguists. Facts that need to be understood by the reader if the rest of the book is to be appreciated. These includes arbitrariness of the sign, cultural transmission, abstraction, and categorization.

So how dose languages mirror their speakers?

Deutscher spends 95 pages (38% of the whole book and 75% of Part 1) arguing that the inventory of color terms in a language reflects the state of the culture's need to distinguish one color from another as well as its exposure to a wide range of hues (particularly, artificial). The basic facts, which have been established by about 150 years of empirical findings, are these:
  • All languages have a set of color terms (words that name colors).
  • Languages do not share the same color terms (e.g., some have no word for blue and what gets labeled as blue in one language may differ from what what gets labeled as blue in another).
  • Color terms are not arbitrary (each term refers to a coherent subset of the visible spectrum)
  • Acquisition of color terms is predictable (i.e., language acquire names for color terms in a predictable order.
The predictable order of acquisition is this:

black & white > red > yellow/green > blue

What this says is that all languages have terms for black and white. If a language has a third color term, it refers to red. If that language has a fourth color term, it refers to either yellow or green. And so on. See WALS for more.

Deutscher goes to great lengths to establish these facts. Maybe too great. I felt he beat this horse a bit too long and hard. The average reader may disagree. Ultimately, we get no satisfying answer as to why this pattern exists (that's science's fault, just haven't figured it out yet, but Deutscher build this up pretty high to give us such a weak landing).

And this brings me to my first critique of Part 1: This is just too light weight for me. I was expecting a more rigorous scientific work, and what I got was Gladwell-lite. The first three of the five chapters of Part 1 read more like pop biography than serious cognitive science. They each begin by introducing us to an historical 19th Century figure who was crucial in the emerging field of color term research. Deutscher describes each man's lost contribution with the affection of a smitten history student trying to re-fight battles that ended before his grandfather was born. It's a particular genre of history that is not uncommon (think Ken Burns' The Civil War), but I found it beside the point. Can we please get down to the business of how language affects thought, I kept thinking. Worse, despite his lengthy explications, he never quite convinced me that color terms was the crucial topic he needs it to be in order to justify such lengthy discussion. His own obsession with color term research leads him to over-emphasize the topic, to the detriment of many other crucial topics (which he does in fact get to, but a little too late and a dollar short).

He's also a little too fond of his own Writing 101 skills. Several times he concocts little explanatory vignettes, but then rather takes it too far, going on not for a paragraph or two, but a full page. He also tends to give us these tantalizing teasers about future chapters (like "X would have to wait until Y before..."). I found these a bit tiresome. A bit too much like Behind The Music documentaries which tease you before each commercial break.

Deutscher has been criticized for treating Benjamin Lee Whorf too harshly (see my review of his NYTs article here for specifics). At one point in this book he call Whorf the most notorious of the [linguistic relativity] con men. This is odd, to me, because in Part 1 Deutscher repeatedly channels Whorfs own claims and even language. If you were to read Whorf's original 1940 essay Science and Linguistics (pdf), one of his early drafts of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, you'd have to conclude that he and Deutscher are best pals, simpatico. They both make the same distinction between folk theories and science; they both emphasize the need to question one's own pre-conceived notions, and both concoct straw men to argue against.

Both Deutscher and Whorf sketch for us the basic assumptions of the common man (Deutscher actually uses the phrase Joe the Plumber, Peirs the Ploughman, or Tom Piper's son to represent this straw man at one point). But I couldn't help but shake my head at some of the things Deutscher thinks you and his readers are running around thinking, like "primitive people speak primitive languages" (page 99; this is an echoing of Whorf as well). I have no doubt that SOME people think this, but is this the average person? Deutscher needs this straw man to create the space of need that he fills. Joe the Plumber NEEDS Deutscher to save him from his ignorance.

In a similar vein, Deutscher also uses some questionable assumptions. On page 101 he seems to assume that our contemporary notions of aboriginal languages comes from Tintin and Westerns...huh? Frikkin Tintin? I had to Google that. And Westerns? Does Deutscher think it's 1955?

The portion of Part 1 I liked most was the last 20 pages or so where he really starts to get into the meat of how language and culture intermix. If only this were the FIRST 20 pages, but alas.

He finally starts to get into really interesting issues of culture and language when he discusses complexity and language. I found it a little confusing that he would claim, and strongly so, that "No one has ever measured the overall complexity of even one single language, not to mention all of them. No one even has an idea how to measure the overall complexity of a language" (page 105). Then he claims that it is inherently impossible to compare the complexity of two languages (page 109).

My position is that this is simply false and it is odd for Deutscher to have published those sentences. What Deutscher is doing, I think, is defining his own version of what it means to "measure the overall complexity of a language" in such a way that the many attempts to do so, dating back to the 1940s, don't count. He's playing a rhetorical game like politicians do when they pledge to cut taxes in such a way that when they fail to do it later on, they can wiggle out beneath their words to make it look like they lived up to them nonetheless. Linguists and logicians have long been interested in measuring linguistic complexity. Deutscher makes it look like this is not so. He may not like these attempts. He may wish to debate their merits, but they do exist. All you have to do is Google "measuring linguistic complexity" and you get a whole host of results, like these:
We discover quite quickly what Deutscher is doing as he begins to walk through complexity issues of "particular areas of language" (page 109), namely morphology, phonology, and subordination. And these last 15 pages are really the gem of Part 1. He shows that there is an interesting, somewhat illogical, entirely engaging but as yet unexplained set of correlations between speaker population size and linguistic complexity.

For example, languages with small numbers of speakers tend to have more morphologically rich grammars (hence one could claim that small = more complex). However, small languages with small numbers of speakers also tend to have small phonological inventories. Hmmm, weird, right?

Deutscher suggests that there could be a cultural reason behind these facts, I'll call it the stranger theory: small societies mostly involve communication with well known people, so they share a lot of background knowledge that does not need to be repeated, hence making more efficient communication. Deutscher makes an interesting case for the stranger theory that goes beyond this and is worth thinking about.

This review may come across as unduly harsh because I was disappointed in the lack of science in Part 1 and that complexity quip got under my skin. Truly, I really am looking forward to reading and reviewing Part 2.
Guy Deutscher (2010). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages Metropolitan Books


wintz said...

However, small languages with small numbers of speakers also tend to have small phonological inventories. Hmmm, weird, right?.

It's funny that you mention this as I recently looked at the phoneme inventory size in relation to demography over at my blog:

Phoneme Inventory Size and Demography

More on Phoneme Inventory Size and Demography

Fips said...

Great review. This book has been on my 'to read' list for a while, but might just drop down again after your comments. It always galls me when an author spends so much time talking around the subject trying to create a page turner, but instead only end up burying the really thought-provoking, pithy remarks half-way into the book.

And just for anyone like me finding this link at a later date, you can find Chris' second part of the review here.