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Language as a mirror and a lens

Yes, languages do influence the way we see the world

Kate Burridge 4 April 2011 1559 words

A,A, a sculpture by Jim Sanborn at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library. Talke Photography/Flickr

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
By Guy Deutscher | Metropolitan Books | $38.95

Through the Language Glass is all about the relationship between what the eye sees, what the mind thinks and what language describes. This is an area that is fascinating to most people, and yet it has received comparatively little scholarly attention over the years. In fact, mainstream linguistics has steered well clear of the topic. While most linguists might agree there is some sort of relationship, they are unwilling to stick their necks out further than this. So a serious (and wonderfully readable) account like this is well overdue and very welcome. Deutscher does stick his neck out, arguing that our group personalities are indeed reflected in the languages we speak. Moreover, these languages influence how we think and how we perceive the world – and in profound and unexpected ways.

As Deutscher is at pains to emphasise early in the book, in this language–mind–culture debate, “culture” refers not to the appreciation of literature, music and the arts (so-called “high culture,” or what in Australian English is sometimes called “the yarts”), but rather to the know-how we need in order to function in society; in other words, the social conventions that are passed down from generation to generation. As Deutscher puts it: “The focus here will be on those everyday cultural traits that are impressed so deeply in our mind that we do not recognize them as such. In short, the aspects of culture that will be explored here are those where culture masquerades as human nature.”

The book divides into two main sections. The first, “Language as a Mirror,” poses the question: If language is a mirror to the mind, what do we see reflected there? One of the reasons we enjoy words so much is that they often provide wonderful windows into a speech community’s values and attitudes. Speakers of Australian English are quick to point out that their language has many expressions with no easy equivalents in national varieties elsewhere (cultural cringe, for instance). They will also point to the flourishing of Australian Englishisms that are recognisably symbolic of cherished values such as “laid-backness,” fairness and community spirit: she’s apples/she’ll be right/no worries; battler; fair go; bludger. For centuries, people have reflected on the character of different languages and their speakers.

Vocabulary is linked to the culture of its speakers in obvious ways. Less obvious are the grammatical aspects where there isn’t the same awareness – those features of language that are more than skin deep (or “tongue deep,” as Deutscher might describe it!). As this book shows spectacularly, languages differ just as widely in the meanings they express by their grammar as they do in their vocabulary. Categories that we, as speakers of English (or as speakers of Indo-European languages more generally), are familiar with and consider so natural can be totally lacking in other languages – especially those from another family.

Take the straightforward example of plurality on nouns. Every time we use a noun, we must indicate whether it is singular or plural. Looking through our English spectacles, we might well imagine the expression of number to be universal. In fact, there are many languages where speakers don’t have to take into account or offer this information. While they might use quantity phrases such as numerals if required, this information is not included obligatorily as it is in English. (As an aside, many English speakers complain about redundant expressions such as 9.00 am in the morning and past history, never noticing the abundance of grammatical overkill built into their language – in the sentence Those three linguists are mistaken plural is indicated four times!) It is hard for us to imagine situations where the expression of number on nouns is optional, and yet there are speakers of other languages who would find English curiously lacking here – the speakers of the many languages in the world that make still finer distinctions in number, showing special marking for two nouns and perhaps even for three.

As Deutscher shows, there can be remarkable differences in the kinds of information that languages compel their speakers to include in this way. The Amazonian language Matses has three degrees of pastness and a complex system of evidentiality, where the grammar obliges speakers to include markers on the verb to indicate exactly how it is they came to know about the events they are reporting, “like the finickiest of lawyers,” as Deutscher describes it. In this part of the book he also challenges what for some linguists has become the cornerstone of their discipline: the belief that “all languages are equally complex.” Many studies are beginning to show unexpected correlations between the culture and society of speakers and the linguistic complexity of their languages (and no, the findings are not as you might imagine – but I don’t want to spoil the surprise).

When the preoccupations of speakers find expression in the rules of grammar, we are potentially seeing cultural influences working at a much more subtle level. And here we come to the even more controversial question contained in the second part of the book, “Language as a Lens.” If our language acts as a mirror, can we go one step further – is it also a lens through which we view the world? In other words, are the languages we speak a screen or filter for reality? These ideas have previously been bundled together under the label “linguistic relativity” or “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” Part One of the book shows that languages can differ strikingly when it comes to what they express more easily and, more interestingly, what they must express, and while clearly this doesn’t constrain our thoughts and behaviour (after all, languages do not differ as to what they can express), it is riveting to contemplate the extent to which these differences in grammatical structure or in vocabulary might actually predispose speakers to a particular line of thinking.

Many of you will have experienced languages that distinguish between an informal “you” pronoun and a formal “you” pronoun (German’s du versus Sie, for instance, or the French tu versus vous). The pronoun chosen then determines the grammatical form of the verb, and this is another of those obligatory distinctions that speakers must observe. Every time they need a “you” pronoun, they must take special note of factors to do with the status and solidarity relations between themselves and the person they are addressing. So it is reasonable to assume that such speakers might be attuned to the social details of their audience – such as age, sex, status, degree of familiarity – much more than English speakers, who don’t have to make this tricky distinction. In fact, it seems commonsensical that our languages do guide our attention in different directions, yet the problem has always been how to measure this. Deutscher’s book reports on some recent experiments, offering scientific confirmation that the peculiarities of individual languages do indeed sensitise speakers to different aspects of the world. Empirical testing in the areas of spatial orientation, colour and grammatical gender shows convincingly that in these areas at least speakers of different languages do think and behave differently.

Bearing in mind how closely entwined language and culture are, you might also try to imagine what it would be like to lose something that is so central to what makes you tick. Deutscher’s book underlines the fragility of the world’s languages, especially the ones that do things so differently from English. Crucial parts of people’s social and cultural identity are vanishing. For linguists, important linguistic systems are disappearing forever – and Deutscher’s book opens our eyes to what else might be disappearing with those dying words and constructions. Like Australian linguist Nicholas Evans’s recent book, Dying Words, Deutscher’s work highlights what we really lose when a language dies (the “looming collapse of human ways of knowing,” as Evans describes it).

Deutscher’s book closes on a positive note, however, pointing out the exciting prospect that the influence of language on our thinking is no longer seen as fluff on the lunatic fringe of linguistics. In the final section, “Forgive Us Our Ignorances,” he reflects on how future science (advances, say, in neural networking) will be able to shed light on the society, language and mind liaison. Experimental tools might eventually be able to show us, for example, that the obligatory marking on nouns really does affect the attention and memory patterns of English speakers.

This book is superbly written. Even non-specialists will find themselves taking in, even enjoying, some heavy-duty facts about the structures of different languages – complex matters to do with grammatical gender and subordination, kinship systems, colour and the science of vision, the phonological complexities of the 3Xóõ language with its 125 consonants (seventy-eight of which are clicks), even the grammatical intricacies of Matses. This is a book that should be high up on the list of bedtime reading for linguists and non-linguists alike. •

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