Through The Language Glass

Linguistics is a science that is at best a bit murky; it can become a quagmire, too. The language barriers I mention in the title refer to the barriers put up by linguists on their own understanding of languages. A new book tries to get rid of a few 19th century hold-overs embedded in our minds.

Linguist Guy Deutscher’s Through The Language Glass was published by Heinemann. Deutscher goes against the grain and bone of established linguists by taking a common sense look at language. The whole attempt is refreshing and doomed to failure as he gets caught in the quagmire of the science. But if you like to take a fresh look at things you thought you knew, he certainly gives you the starting points to start your own thoughts on language and its use.

American linguistic guru Noam Chomsky once proposed that we are born with an innate sense of grammar and that grammar in all languages was so similar that aliens coming to earth would assume that we all talk dialects of the same language. Similarities are a fickle thing, and small dissimilarities may hide profound differences in thinking; I wouldn’t want to put my name under that part of the statement. And as to an innate sense of grammar, he obviously wrote this at a time before modern journalists started butchering grammar on a daily basis.

Deutscher concentrates on studies done by John Havilland on the language of the Guugu Yimithirr in Australia. The language is the originator of the word received in English as kangaroo. But Havilland’s study covers a more interesting aspect of that language. It has no word for left, right, in front, or behind. All directions are given by reference to North, South, East, and West. While we are limited to indicate a direction by reference to us or a (maybe) known landmark, the Guugu Yimithirr are able to indicate the direction in an objective surrounding.

If you would follow a linguist great like George Steiner in his reasoning, the lack of our known directional words should mean that the Guugu Yimithirr miss out on understanding them. But contrariwise, they can understand them very well even if they might wonder at our self centred thinking or our inability to orient ourselves in this world. Steiner’s reasoning was that the Hebrews lacking a future tense in their language were unable to understand future as an abstract concept. I join Deutscher in his verdict of ‘a harebrained notion’.

Deutscher also goes into the use of names for colours and colour descriptions; and usually arrives at similar results as with the directional words. The work suffers a bit under too much colour, and by the fact that he often gets lost in his own arguments to the point where he starts to defend his enemies and attack his supporters. This to my unique sense of humour makes it just more interesting to read, though.

If you enjoy the use of language and are someone who likes juggling ideas and concepts, this book is a must read. It probably won’t answer a lot of questions you have concerning language use, but it will feed you loads of new questions to ponder.

Further reading
Literary Trolls
Taking a Dig at The French
High Literature: Being Politically Incorrect