Book 5: Through The Language Glass

“The cultural significance of blue, on the other hand, is very limited. As noted earlier, blue is extremely rare as a color of materials in nature, and blue dyes are exceedingly difficult to produce. People in simple cultures might spend a lifetime without seeing objects that are truly blue. Of course, blue is the color of the sky (and, for some of us, the sea). But in the absence of blue materials with any practical significance, the need to find a special name for this great stretch of nothingness is particularly non-pressing.” 

Dates read: October 20-25, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Of all the classes that I took while an undergrad at the University of Michigan, there are a handful that really stick out. LING 211, Introduction to Linguistics, was one of those classes. I actually dallied with the idea of making linguistics my minor because I enjoyed the class so much. Although upper-level linguistics pretty quickly disabused me of that notion, I still retain a real interest in linguistics, particularly sociolinguistics.

The Sapir-Whorf theory of sociolinguistics was trendy almost 100 years ago: it suggested that the language we use controls the way that we think. It's an initially intriguing hypothesis with a lot of instinctual appeal. If a language doesn't have a word for a particular phenomenon, or lacks a particular tense, why wouldn't speakers of that language have a hard time conceiving of that phenomenon or that kind of world? Until you realize that some languages, like the Italian I studied as an undergrad, have an entire tense for the remote past, passato remoto, while the English language doesn't. Does that mean English speakers can't conceive of events very far in the past? Of course not. Does that mean that we don't understand implicitly terms like saudade, a melancholy longing for things that are gone and will never come back? Again, of course not, but for a while educated people would have thought so.

Deutscher reinvigorates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis among a very few limited lines: primarily, he focuses on the idea that our languages impact how we think about color, along with how we process geolocation, and objects in gendered languages. As speakers of a neuter language, we don't think about objects as inherently gendered things. But if you speak a language that thinks of bridges as masculine, like Spanish, bridges are strong and sturdy. If you speak a language that thinks of bridges as feminine, like German, however, you're much more likely to implicitly think of bridges as beautiful and delicate. And color! There's an incredible explanation of the Homeric description of the sea as "wine-dark" that I can't possibly condense, but if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be enraptured.

Fascinating stuff, for a person who has a real interest in psychology and language. If not, probably not a text for you. Since I'm the former rather than the latter, I loved this book and found it incredibly compelling.

Tell me, blog friends...what kind of oddball things do you get nerdy about? 

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