“Through the Language Glass”: How language and culture shape each other

Author Guy Deutscher answers some questions about his upcoming book in an interview with the Paris Review.

He offers a few interesting examples of how language can give insight into culture and vice versa.

Guy Deutscher on ‘Through the Language Glass’

You say that if a language has a word for the color blue, it will almost certainly have a word for red, but not vice versa. What does this sort of asymmetry tell us about the perception of color?

First: not “almost certainly” but “certainly”—we don’t know of any exceptions to this rule. The initial conclusion of scholars in the nineteenth century was that this asymmetry reflects very recent biological improvements in color vision. It took a long time and a good deal of pain to come to terms with the realization that the development of color names reflects profound cultural changes, not anatomical ones. A large part of the book is spent trying to get to terms with the counterintuitive fact that the color distinctions we make are heavily influenced by cultural conventions and are not merely given to us by nature. The bottom line, very crudely, is this: People find a name for red before they develop a name for blue not because they can see the former before the latter, but because we find names for what we think is important to talk about, and red is more important in the life of people in all simpler cultures than blue.

What the anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas explained in the beginning of the twentieth century was that the grammar of each language determines which aspects of experience must be expressed. In the 1950s Roman Jakobson turned Boas’s insight into a pithy maxim: Languages differ essentially in what they must convey, not in what they may convey (for in theory, every thought can be expressed in every language). Languages differ in what types of information they force the speakers to mention when they describe the world. (For example, some languages require you to be more specific about gender than English does, while English requires you to be more specific about tense than some other languages. Some require you to be more specific about color differences, and so on.) And it turns out that if your language routinely obliges you to express certain information whenever you open your mouth; it forces you to pay attention to certain types of information and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not need to be so attentive to. These habits of speech can then create habits of mind that go beyond mere speech, and affect things like memory, attention, association, even practical skills like orientation.

Again, the point is not that they cannot understand egocentric coordinates. They didn’t seem to have any problems learning these concepts in English and using them correctly. The real difference lies somewhere else: If you are forced by your language to be aware of the geographic directions at every waking second of your life (because egocentric coordinates are never used for directions), then this habit creates a layer of spatial thinking and memory that “we,” who speak egocentric languages, don’t need to have, and this type of geographic awareness has profound implications for orientation and the perception of space.

Well, as for the first question, I can’t explain it better than William Ewart Gladstone did one hundred and fifty years ago: “Colours were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of colour; and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself.” For Homer, the word that ended up meaning “green” meant something like “fresh” or “pale,” and could be applied with perfect sense to fresh and pale looking things of both green and yellow hue. The distinction in hue between yellow and green was not one that seemed very important in his day. Similarly, in many cultures “blue” is just considered a particular shade of black, and finding a particular name for this particular shade is not a very pressing matter, especially as blue material objects (as opposed to the vast nothingness of sky or even the sea) are extremely rare in nature. So it makes perfect sense, if some nagging anthropologist comes to question you about the color of the sky, to use the nearest color on your palette, and say “black.”

Read more at www.theparisreview.org


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