News blog

Ruth’s Reviews: Through the Language Glass

Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one a week and posting her thoughts on The Great Beyond every Tuesday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November

HB Language cover.jpgBack in 1858, William Gladstone wrote a three-volume tome on Homer. Volume three contains a chapter concerning the limited use of colour in the Iliad and the Odyssey. But why did the ancients use less colour in their literature? Did they perceive colour differently? Not give it much importance? Gladstone’s writing triggered a debate about whether nature or culture shapes and controls language.

The debate continues today, having swung back and forth between the two camps. In Through The Language Glass, Guy Deutscher sets out to educate the lay reader, illustrating the limitations in agreeing wholesale with either one side or the other.

Colour isn’t the only thing influenced by language. Outlining the arguments surrounding the languages of colour, spatial awareness and gender, the author takes the reader through the looking glass to turn familiar concepts on their heads. Deutscher believes, contrary to popular theory, that our mother tongue does affect the way we relate to our world: “habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself,” and he sets out to persuade us of this.

In the Homeric example of colour use, we see that this muted world is reflected in texts from entirely different civilizations in the same period. Does this mean that the eyes of the ancients were less developed than our own? Or was language affected by the limitations of the culture of the time, for example an emerging dyeing industry meant fewer colours could be synthesized and so fewer labels for colours had been developed.

Travelling lightly through the analyses of various linguistic theorists, he argues that our concepts of colour can increase our sensitivity to certain colour distinctions. While nature lays out the spectrum of colour, cultures decide how we divide and label the spectrum.

His analogies are vivid here and in the chapters on space and gender, and I found myself thinking more about the labels we use for the world around us as a result.

The reader may feel like the Red Queen; running through various theory in order to conclude that language evolution occurs as a result of both nature and culture. No surprise in this destination but the storytelling en route is strong enough that we enjoy the journey all the same.

Previously on Ruth’s Reviews

Ruth’s Reviews:Alex’s Adventures in Numberland


  1. Report this comment

    David Waltner-Toews said:

    Homer also does not mention roosters crowing in his rosey-fingered dawn. Bred for fighting, they had not yet arrived from the east. Culture re-shaped the (natural) birds, which then re-shaped the language, which then re-shaped the culture, which then re-shaped the natural landscape.

  2. Report this comment

    Mong H Tan, PhD said:

    RE: Maybe not — but through the creative imagery of our Human Mind!?

    There is no doubt that our use of languages is shaped by our culture — as one report-comment that I made here: “Are languages shaped by culture or cognition? — RE: A “universal grammar” theory of linguistics!? — Whereby a grand theory requires grand evidence: especially evidence from multiple languages worldwide!” (NatureNewsUK; April 17, 2011).

    Whereas the Gladstone’s writing above, concerning the limited use of color in ancient texts, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey is very observant, curious and novel, indeed!

    In the Deutscher’s belief that our mother tongue does affect the way we relate to our world: “habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself,” as reviewed by Ruth above, I thought his speculation of the limited Homeric color use, is not persuasive, at all; but at best, peripheral or superficial in our modern day psycholinguistic sense!

    Historically and psycholinguistically, the fact that the ancients had had used less color words in their literature, is suggestive of the observation and implication that all of their epic texts were the direct properties and products of their creative Mind; in and with which, their mental imageries (including their conscious thoughts; subconscious dreams, emotions, etc) of their experienced memories, or declarative narratives thereof, are usually presented in a spectrum of gray: primarily in non-colored shapes of “black and white” or “good and evil” characterizations, only (as imageries appear in our dreams) — unless they would otherwise intentionally attach color descriptive words to their creative writings, so as to specify their experienced or envisaged imageries of thought (or dreams as creations) in their subsequently literary works — therefore, not until the Gladstone’s nuance observation and query in 1858, the ancient authors, writers, or scribes were very unlikely to be aware of their consequently limited use of color words in their literature — lest they happened to be experiencing synesthesia!?

    As such, it would be interesting to see if the future interested psycholinguists would also apply the Gladstone’s keen eye — or the recently invented culturomics methodology — to the other ancient texts as well: including the Gilgamesh, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Holy Bible, the Holy Koran, the Upanisad, the Book of Change (or Dao De Jing) etc!?

    Best wishes, Mong 10/21/11usct12:54p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

Comments are closed.