Author: Guy Deutscher
Date read: July 2018
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
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Summary & High Level Thoughts
This book looks at how the language you speak affects the way we think and see the world.
Guy Deutscher, the author, is an Israeli linguist, aan Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and a former professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
This means he brings a scientific perspective to the language discussion, something that's often overlooked in this area, and that's where the value of this book lies.
It's an interesting read if you are into language learning, but it's not mind-blowing. If you are not into language learning, I'd skip it. I was tempted to drop it a few times, but I ended up finishing it because I wanted to see where the author was going to take me.
What's the color of the sky?
If you, are from the Western World, you will claim, swear, sustain it's blue. But if you are Homer, and you are writing the The Iliad and The Odyssey it is not.
Homer never described the sky as blue. In fact, Homer barely used colour terms at all and when he did they were just peculiar. The sea was "wine-looking". Oxen were also "wine-looking".
It turned out that it wasn't just the Ancient Greeks who never said the sky was blue. None of the ancient languages had a proper word for blue. What we now call blue was once subsumed by older words for black or for green.
You might be susprised by this, but our mother tongue has a deep influence on how we think about the world. This has been scientifically demonstrated in two main areas.
Space & Language
First, space and spacial relationships. If you are from the West, you are used to think about left, right, front and back. You are the center of your world, so you the two axes (left-right, front-back) depend on the position of your body.
In short, our axis always shifts together with our vision so we always know where "in front of us' mean, regardless of the location you are describing.
These are called 'egocentric coordinates': "Turn left, then right, then keep going'. On the other hand, you have 'geographical coordinates'. "Go north, turn south", or "The UK is north of France".
Yu'd imagine everyone does the same thing. You are wrong.
The tribe Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal Tribe from the Queensland area doesn't use egocentric coordinates at all. They don't have words for left or right, and don't use words like "in front of" to describe the position of objects, because they rely exclusively on geographic coordinates.
"If Guugu Yimithirr speakers want someone to move over in a car to make room, they will say naga-naga manaayi, which means 'move a bit to the east'... Instead of saying that John is in fron of the tree, they would say 'John is just north of the tree'"
They maintain this even when telling stories, reading or explaining hypothethical situations.
You might not think about it, but as Stephen Levinson and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institue of Psycholinguistis proved in this study, this completely changes our perspective of the world.
Gender & Language
Similar experiments have been done to prove how language affects how we think about gender.
A good starting point is Lera Boroditsky's and Lauren Schmidt's experiments on the strict relationship between ender pronouns and how they influences thought.
As you might know, some languages use gender pronouns, and others don't. In addition, objects don't always share a gender across languages.
- In english, a car has no gender.
- In spanish, "auto" is masculine – un auto.
- In french or italian, a car is feminine – "une voiture", or "una machina".
Many languages have a grammatical gender system wherebyall nouns are assigned a gender (most commonly feminine,masculine, or neuter). Two studies examined whether (1) theassignment of genders to nouns is truly arbitrary (as has beenclaimed), and (2) whether the grammatical genders assignedto nouns have semantic consequences. In the first study,English speakers’ intuitions about the genders of animals (butnot artifacts) were found to correlate with the grammaticalgenders assigned to the names of these objects in Spanish andGerman. These findings suggest that the assignment of gen-ders to nouns is not entirely arbitrary but may to some extentreflect the perceived masculine or feminine properties of thenouns’ referents. Results of the second study suggested thatpeople’s ideas about the genders of objects are strongly influ-enced by the grammatical genders assigned to these objects intheir native language. Spanish and German speakers’ mem-ory for object--name pairs (e.g., apple--Patricia) was betterfor pairs where the gender of the proper name was congruentwith the grammatical gender of the object name (in their na-tive language), than when the two genders were incongruent.This was true even though both groups performed the task inEnglish. These results suggest that grammatical gender maynot be as arbitrary or as purely grammatical as was previously.
According to Guy Deutscher, the experiment "proved that manly or womanly associations of inanimate objects are strong enough in the mind of Spanish or German to affect their ability to commit information to memory."
With all that said, the main lesson of this book is empathy. Culture (and language in this case) affect our viewpoint, our manners, our character. As humans who often interact with similar people, we often forget this.
Something interesting this book points out is the discrepancy between unnatural and unfamiliar, something we often forget, specially when discussing race, gender, sexual orientation.