Through the Language Glass | Guy Deutscher

Summary of: Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
By: Guy Deutscher


Embark on an enlightening journey with ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’ by Guy Deutscher, as we explore the captivating intersection of language, culture, and perception. In this fascinating book, you’ll discover how language not only reflects but also influences the way we perceive colors and the world around us. Furthermore, the book delves into the evolution of color perception, the impact of linguistic differences on thought processes, and the intriguing connection between social structure and the complexity of language. Unravel the threads of this entwined relationship between language and culture, shedding new light on the ways we perceive and understand our world.

Color Perception in Ancient Greece

The perception of color varied between cultures, and the Ancient Greeks had a vastly different way of viewing the world than we do today. William Ewart Gladstone, an English scholar, analyzed the words for color in The Iliad and The Odyssey and argued that the Ancient Greeks had an underdeveloped perception of color. They mostly saw things in black and white and didn’t have a well-defined sense of color. Homer’s descriptions of things like honey and twigs as “chlôros” (green) were meant to symbolize paleness and freshness. Gladstone believed that this lack of perception of color could be attributed to the lack of artificial colorants. Blue was particularly rare, and the concept of “blue” didn’t exist in the Ancient Greek language. The Ancient Greeks had yet to go through an education of the eye to perceive differences in color like we do today.

Evolution of Color Sense

In 1867, Lazarus Geiger proposed that the evolution of humankind could be traced through language, specifically through the treatment of color in ancient texts. Geiger’s postulation helped explain the evolution of color sense in the entire human race. Interestingly, color words developed in the same order everywhere in the world. Unfortunately, subsequent researchers spent decades chasing the erroneous belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics as proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Hugo Magnus’s thesis that the human retina develops its sensitivity to color through acquired improvements in color perception was based on this belief. In contrast, culturalists reasoned that changes in color perception were unrelated to anatomical changes, following Geiger’s belief that we cannot infer which colors ancient humans perceived by examining language alone. However, anecdotes of ancient cultures preceding Homer suggest that they could perceive the color blue. This suggests that Geiger’s postulation was correct and that the evolution of color sense can be traced through language.

Color Perception Across Cultures

Islanders on Murray Island had a vaguer vocabulary of colors than other cultures, but the lack of distinction in their language had nothing to do with their vision. In 1898, W.H.R. Rivers went to Murray Island and tested the Islanders’ ability to distinguish between colors; they were able to despite not having words for specific colors. The Islanders likely chose the closest color label in their palette to represent a given color. This phenomenon is not unique to this culture, as the English language also groups distinguishable colors together under one name.

The Nature and Culture of Color Words

Color concepts are determined by both nature and culture. Red is the first color named due to its practicality, signifying danger and sex in nature, and being the most common and least difficult dye to manufacture in culture. Linguistic differences arise when nature is not easily categorized, leading to different cultural methods of color categorization. Younger generations inherit these cultural methods, demonstrating the influence of culture on acquired characteristics.

The Complexity of Language

Languages are complex, but not equally so. A language’s grammatical complexity can sometimes reflect social structure. Linguist Revere Perkins found that languages with simpler word structures belong to larger, more complex societies whose members are often required to explain things to strangers. In simpler communities, pointing information is more common, leading to greater morphological complexity. Simply encountering many different types of a language can also lead to its simplification.

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