Language Reflections & the book ‘Through the Language Glass – Why the World Looks Different in Different Languages’, by Guy Deutscher

That’s a thing we wonder quite a bit isn’t it? Are other people different because they speak another language? The word barbarian itself comes from the idea that foreign languages sounded like “bar-bar-bar” to the Greeks, effectively making the word an onomatopoeia (x). Those who weren’t Greek were barbarian. Which, I guess, makes most of us technically barbarians.

Even if your native language is English, you are probably reading these words in a different accent from the one I’m writing them in, which is in itself amusing. But none of us believe that this will have a fundamental impact on the way we think do we? Or do we? In Stephen Fry’s episode of English Delight “Speaking Proper” they discuss how the various UK accents are perceived, and how one accent can be “lucky” another can be “dishonest”, “dull”, “poor” or “successful”. We already know that we behave differently based on the expectations others have of us, won’t our accent in itself then change how people treat us? And thus, it changes who we are?

And what of those of us who are bilingual? Is my best friend only my best friend in English and Norwegian, but not when she’s speaking Portuguese? As we between us can discuss this through the 4 -and-a-bit languages we know we often come up with words that can’t be translated. “Saudades” and “cafuné” are Portuguese words that, although we can translate them into English concepts, those are still words that describe something specific, and English will have to use a sentence or different words to mean the same things. Same with the French “esprit”. English also doesn’t have a word to describe the whole 24 hours in a day, that is distinct from “day” though there obviously is night within that time of reference. Norwegian uses “døgn”. Sure it can be articulated in English, I just did, but it lacks the precision I would like and it is a great little Norwegian word that you didn’t know you were missing until it was “gone”.

A common question I get is: What language do you think in? What language do you dream in? Although it is a slightly peculiar question, I’m curious by nature and I would be wondering too. The answer, for me, is that I use both interchangeably. I can’t say I remember much language in dreams, in fact I mainly don’t remember dreams much at all, but I do think in both. Depends a bit on the topic, but I must admit my inner narrative often is in English as a result of reading mainly in English and beginning every day with whatever the BBC radio podcast selection has to offer (The Word of Mouth, or History of Ideas, or In Our Time are good for letting the brain wake up, while I usually go to bed listening to some comedy or panel show. I’m that one Radio 4 listener under 50, as they joke a lot is the average listener). My inner narrative follows from that, but then often changes again, if I swap topic, talk with someone Norwegian, or just because, well, I use both naturally.

Some studies suggest we change not only language but culture as we swap language. So I maintain that my appalling French is due to a lack of shrugging skills and interest in food and recipes. But joking aside, I do wonder if I am ever so slightly different as I swap back and forth. It might be subtle, and completely unconscious, but it might very well be there. Well, in fact, when I came back from Britain last time it took months before I stopped saying “sorry” to people and I asked if people needed help carrying things more so than is common in Norwegian culture, which is even more reclusive than its British counterpart.

Some of these questions, and the reality of my life as a French student with friends from all over the world, many of whom have different native languages from me, and the fact that I got the book suggested to me made me pick up Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass. And it is the perfect bloody book for me!

(x)

His way of writing is close to my heart, a meandering narrative that increasingly makes everything clear as you go along. He starts off discussing some of the questions he sets out to answer and the state of modern linguistics. There is a discussion between the culturalists and naturalists in linguistics, and Deutscher wants to explain why culture has a larger impact on language than is perhaps the mainstream consensus in modern linguistics, and he makes a great argument for it indeed.

Chapter one goes back to the mid 1800ds and Gladstone’s love of the ancient Greeks. Taking us from Gladstone’s surprise at the colour descriptions (and lack thereof) in Classic literature, through Lamarck and Darwin, anthropology and the various branches of study that tried to answer the question why Homer called the sky wine-coloured and a sheep purple. Finally, the linguists get a go. The lack of a word for “blue” might to a 19th century Englishman seem slightly insane, and can quickly lead you to the conclusion that the ancients in fact couldn’t see the same vivid colours as we do. Deutscher takes us on a journey of how science, luckily, has got further in understanding since then.

He discusses how a language’s use of genders (like French with Le/la) affects the way we think about objects. A table is female in French, but everything is inherently neutral in English, will this change how we see tables, even if ever so slightly? I remember my flatmate insisted spiders were female because they say “la” when talking about spiders in Spanish. In Norwegian, we technically use say “en edderkopp” using the male gender for spiders, but quite frankly, I can’t say I have any strong feelings on spiders being male, or female for that matter. In French the sun is male, the moon is female (it’s actually the other way around in Norwegian), and the French have used this in poetry for centuries. I can’t say Norwegian does, which leads me to wonder why not. Also, I say these things but what if I do mentally think of a tree as an it but a pencil as a “he”? I don’t consciously, not at all, but maybe I unconsciously do, and I’d be interested for any experiments researching if Norwegian children would prefer the ball, in a cartoon of speaking objects, to be male while the cow should be female? Then again, at least my dialect of Norwegian, uses en/le for most things that are technically feminine, so it’s completely normal to conjugate correctly corresponding to gender, but using the article wrong.

(Here follows a small discussion on the Norwegian language and may be skipped by those who really couldn’t be bothered about the nitty-gritty of such things:)

En sol – sola (a sun, the sun), En bok – boka (a book, the book). Though it should technically be “ei sol” and “ei bok” as “ei” is the feminine article in Norwegian and these words are technically feminine. We have the neutral article, et hus – huset (a house, the house), and the male conjugated to correspond, en gutt – gutten (a boy, the boy). But in Norwegian there are dialects differences where you conjugate even words like “the girl” using the male article conjugation pattern, and other dialects that use the female article and conjugation even more than standard “bokmål” Norwegian says is the norm. However, as we are not French we have two standardised ways of writing Norwegian (bokmål and nynorsk – check Wikipedia next time and you’ll notice them both) but accept a lot of variation as we are trying to embrace the variety, rather than standardise grammar and the language completely, leaving us yet another incident where language and thoughts about language differs. 

I remember my dad (he works with problem kids and teens) telling me about this young girl he met with depression, and how she had very poor language skills. In fact, she could only describe her feeling as “cool” or “rubbish”. Her limiting vocabulary was restricting her entire mental capacity for expressing her emotions adequately, so she was not able to completely communicate her depression and her pain.

The same can happen in a intercultural relationship where there are expressions like “I love you” that might be differently loaded. Imagine an Anglo-French couple arguing, both trying to express their emotions in the other’s language but even though they both speak the other’s language well, it’ll never be as easy to articulate the problem completely exact to the other. And maybe it isn’t the French language that is the issue, but the different cultural expectations that aren’t met. Maybe the English part of the relationship isn’t articulating feelings enough because that was never required with boyfriends back at home? Language is a cause of frustration because it is our major means of communication, and we can easily misunderstand each other even in our own tongues as we load words differently from each other.

We might not start picking flees out of the hair of our fellow humans, but if we are feeling lonely we might make a comment on the weather. Just today I had a nice little chat with an older lady (initiated, of course, by her dog’s wish to say hello to me), which is the human equivalent of seeking affirmation, grooming and affection. Touch is obviously also vital to us, but there is something very unique about the role of language in our lives.

The words available to us must surely then shape our thoughts and feelings, at least the way we express them. And as different languages have different vocabularies I’m inclined to believe that what language/s we speak does have an impact, and that language itself is affected by culture. As Guy Deutscher expresses vividly through the way different cultures express the words for colours.

I haven’t read the whole book yet, I’m halfway, and I’m curious to see what more he comes up with and argues. I love the semi-academic general audience genre where things can be expressed more poetically in proper English rather than be boxed in as is often the case of articles that are meant to effectively convey information. Of course, there is a value in that, but the beauty of language that can be find in books like these is very precious to me.

Or indeed, as I stalked the author’s home page I found out he had an Nytimes article “Does Language Shape How You Think“, that in case you are stressed for time, might be the cheaper and less-time consuming (though, obviously less fun) option.

Kind regards,

Julie

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, The Human Condition

3 responses to “Language Reflections & the book ‘Through the Language Glass – Why the World Looks Different in Different Languages’, by Guy Deutscher

  1. Thanks for that post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I was thinking about your Anglo-French couple arguing and I wonder if they actually have a relationship advantage, knowing that they don’t share a common language (except the language of looks and touch etc. they’ll have established as a couple). One of the great illusions of those who share a language is that the same words mean the same thing coming out of the mouths of different people.

    Couples I’ve known, without a common language, do seem to give each other that extra millisecond of leeway while they do their best to understand what the other is trying to say. Maybe it wears off after a few years, but it’s a useful safety barrier in the meantime.

    All best wishes
    Elaine

    • Julie

      Although I think it might get frustrating, I really know what you mean! We might labour under the wrongful apprehension that because we use the same words we mean the same things, and an obvious distinction such as a language barrier might help highlight the issue and actually make us work through them. I’ll make sure to subtly stalk my friends with boyfriends from different language backgrounds from now on! (or, you know, I could just ask their opinion).

      I probably heard it on the BBC somewhere, that men and women just think we are different because most couples consist of one man and one woman living closely together, trying to understand each other. The gender gap isn’t the real issue (though relationship books profit off the idea), it’s the difficulty in communication with the person closest to you that creates that myth. I haven’t looked into it myself, but it stuck with me as an interesting idea. I think they spoke about it because gay couples experience the same issues even though they’re the same gender. Which makes me think this might also have come from Stephen Fry’s English Delight 😀

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!
      Julie

      • I think it’s also the fact that we don’t really listen to each other – so we’ve guessed a lot of the words coming out of the other person’s mouth anyway. At least if your partner is from a different language group you have to pay attention to each word. Or ‘read’ their face more closely.

        By the way, thinking about communication between gay couples, you might enjoy this article about ‘Gay signing’ https://zoecormier.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/gay-signing/ I thought it was fascinating.
        Best wishes
        Elaine

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