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
Back 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