A notepad for the mind

Through the language glass : Guy Deutscher

What shapes perception, or shall I say, the brain’s simulation of reality? Is it innate, or within our genes? Or is it conditioned, i.e. based on learning mechanisms or culture, which make our brain conducive to change, especially during impressionable period of childhood? This debate is as old
as the introspective human mind is, and still has enough fire to keep the lamps of the philosophical thought of the 21st century burning. Although, what has changed, is the way these questions are approached, and the sharpness of the boundaries that scientists use to scrutinize if a problem is valid.

This book takes us through the history of various progressions of scientific thought, and arguments which have shaped our current understanding of the effect of one of the conditioning mechanisms, language, on perception. It chooses to take the serpentine path, showing around the mountain of evidence that kept accumulating over centuries, and the abyss of bad science which surrounded it.

Gladstone’s review of the Homer’s Iliad, followed by Geiger’s sequence, and Magnus’s hypothesis on how physiology of human vision could have changed over time (which was considered plausible, given the Lamarckian understanding of evolution at the age). It modestly talks about the giants in the field and how they completely missed the effect culture could have in shaping behavior, and gives a sort of slogan , which is Flexibility with constraints (how much effect nurture can have, as opposed to nature.)

It further goes on to analyze in detail the study of Benjamin Whorf and others, which is a sort of pedagogical reminder of how not to over-claim, and what is the stuff of logical fallacies (with no offense to Steven Pinker). It talks about ignorance of the world to alternative language mechanisms which were organizationally distinct from Latin/Greek based languages.

In the second half of the book, Guy talks about the three main areas, where we have at least some idea of how language really may be affecting perception or thought:

  1. Colour perception: Here he talks about Russian blues and certain other experiments, which argue that colour perception might in fact be altered by just having an explicit syntactic description of a particular colour, i.e., if we have a word for light blue, we are more likely to experience it. In other words, our reality, when we see light blue, may differ from another person who does not have it. This wasn’t too convincing for more reasons than one, and especially because the studies stated are only at best correlative, and are inconclusive in ascribing causation to language. Although, given the wealth of studies which show correlations, it would be incorrect to disregard such evidence completely, and along with it, any effect that may in fact exist.
  2. Linguistic coordinate system: The part about coordinate systems was most fascinating. It talks about the language of an Australian aboriginal tribe, Guugu Yamithir (the benefactor of the word Kangaroo), which was first described by James Cook in his voyage journals. He talks about these and other such tribes which have only a cardinal system of stating direction (such as North, East, West, South), as opposed to most of us, who use egocentric (left, right, front, back) ways to describing direction. So basically, because of the explicit dependency of the language on such cardinal description (1 in 10 words are direction words!), the Guugu Yimithir people have a live compass in their head all the time!
  3. Genders: Lastly, it talks about how genders evolved in languages, and how in certain languages, like my mother tongue, Hindi and others like French, Spanish and German there is no neuter gender, and inanimate objects are classified as male or female, etc. It further explores the effect this may have on the speaker’s perspective of the object, and talks about studies which measure this effect. For instance, people are more likely to ascribe “strong, ugly, large” qualities to objects in English, when in their respective mother tongues, it has a masculine word. The same goes for objects to be “pretty, small, and weak” and feminine objects.

He also talks about other fascinating tribes, like Matses which prescribes an extreme amount of evidence for even colloquial conversations, and why the Japanese people sometimes have a somewhat blue traffic signal for ‘GO’ and so on.

As an overview, it is one of the nicer to read Science non-fiction books I have read, I would give it 4 stars on 5.

Posted under: Book review

Er... so, what do you think?

%d bloggers like this: