An exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity, about the curious interactions between language and perception
In April 2002, the great journal Lloyd’s List gave shipping a sex change, switching the nautical pronoun to “it”. According to Guy Deutscher, “‘she’ fell by the quayside.” There, in half a sentence, you have the delight of this book: pertinent anecdote, relaxed wit and an uneasy sense that the author is always one jump ahead.
As a reporter who once covered the waterfront, I loved Lloyd’s List. Its closely printed pages recorded so much of the world’s shipping traffic and its tragedies (in its berths and deaths columns, so to speak). But editorial fiat couldn’t change the thinking of a generation that metaphorically pushed the boat out, or waited for their ship to come in; that caught the tide or sailed against the wind; that grew up with Captain Marryat, C S Forester and Joseph Conrad. To such people, English ships display feminine grace, not because a bulk carrier, barge or battleship is innately female, but because some linguistic convention ensured that for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, the English language retained “she” for shipping even as it neutered almost every other inanimate thing, including trees.
Put like that, the logic is obvious: of course a language that confers masculinity on a pine tree but femininity on a palm would be able to play with imagery that might make no sense in translation to a language that did not. Deutscher’s book begins with a promise to demolish the intellectual clichés, and subvert glib anecdotal demonstrations of the way our mother tongue defines or limits our thought, and then confirms that in very limited instances, it almost certainly does shape the way we see the world. The book is a joyous and unexpected intellectual journey through the strange interaction between language and the world that language attempts to describe.
At its heart is an old conundrum. Why was Homer’s sea “wine-dark”? Did the Greeks have no word for blue? William Ewart Gladstone, already an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer but not yet a prime minister, published in 1849 a 1,700-page, three-volume work on the poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and ended it with a chapter on Homer’s perception and use of colour.
According to Deutscher, this profoundly affected “the development of at least three academic disciplines” and triggered a war over the linguistic link between culture and nature that, 150 years on, is still being fought. For Gladstone was inclined to think that because the Greek language offered such a limited visual palette, then perhaps colour perception had not evolved: perhaps ancient Greeks saw the world more in black and white than in Technicolour.
This hypothesis could – up to a point – be tested: perhaps other “primitive” cultures maintained the same handicap? Imperialist Europe and expansionist America were not short of subjects for research.
The question was: does not having a word for blue (or green) mean that people don’t see that colour? Tests showed quickly enough that colour-blindness is not common, and is evenly distributed everywhere. So could there be something about the language that dictated a particular group’s perception of or attention to colour? Or something about the demands of the local environment that necessarily shaped the tribal language?
The journey to a not-quite-cut-and-dried conclusion draws on history, ethnography and psychology as well as a little physiology, and delivers from the mix an exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity. Great names flit across the pages; great stories, too, about the astonishing variety of human speech and the riches of even the most supposedly primitive, vanishing languages. The speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, for example, would never advise a motorist to take the second left: all their conversation is in exquisitely precise geographic coordinates. They even, says Deutscher, dream in cardinal directions.
This is a book written in blissful English, by someone whose mother tongue is Hebrew, who is an expert in near-Eastern languages and who can no doubt talk his way confidently around Europe and far beyond: a living rebuke to the obdurate Anglo-Saxon monoglot.
Tim Radford‘s geographical reflection, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things is published by Fourth Estate
Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books: The shortlist
Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample
The Rough Guide to the Future by Jon Turney