The one-sentence summary
The language we speak affects the way we view the world and works through two perspectives – language as a mirror can reflect views, but language as a lens can bring them into focus.
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
- Subtitled Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages, this book seeks to answer the question: does the language we speak affect the way we view the world? He believes the answer is yes.
- He works through two perspectives –language as a mirror can reflect views, but language as a lens can bring them into focus.
- There has been a huge debate about whether language reflects the character of its speakers, or whether it influences their thought processes.
- A classic example to illustrate the problem is the use of words to describe colour. Gladstone was the first to spot that Homer’s writing had some strange characteristics: it used the same word to describe colours which are different to ours; described the same objects as having a variety of colours; and had a very small colour vocabulary (unusual for a flowery writer).
- The upshot is that you can plot the description of colour over the ages, from black, white and red (the highest intensity on the spectrum), to yellow, green and, lastly, blue (prevalent in nature but barely mentioned to start with).
- There is no such thing as a simple, primitive language – they are all equally complicated.
- Language does not prevent its speakers from understanding broad concepts, even if there is no specific word for it in a particular language.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- Examples of amazing languages abound. The Matses tribe in the Amazon demonstrate mind-blowing subtlety when describing events. Different verbal endings explain whether something took place in the recent or distant past, and reveals ‘evidentiality’ – specifying how they came to know the facts they are reporting.
- For example, if you ask a Matses man from the Amazon how many wives he has, unless he can see them right there, he might say ‘two were there’ (last time I checked).
- The aboriginal language of Guugu Yimithirr is geocentric – it requires a constant awareness of north and south to be used (“Ours is the southern door). Ours is egocentric – based on left and right in relation to where we are.
- “We infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument to which each forcible individual in a course of many hundred years has contributed a stone.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- You have to get stuck in to the dense narrative, but it’s worth it.