Friday, June 18, 2010

Guy Deutscher: Language alters how we think

The linguist argues that in our haste to explain language in terms of genetics we've underestimated the power of culture

Guy Deutscher is that rare beast, an academic who talks good sense about linguistics, his chosen field. In his new book, Through the Language Glass (Heinemann), he fearlessly contradicts the fashionable consensus, espoused by the likes of Steven Pinker, that language is wholly a product of nature, that it does not take colour and value from culture and society. Deutscher argues, in a playful and provocative way, that our mother tongue does indeed affect how we think and, just as important, how we perceive the world.

An honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester, the 40-year-old linguist draws on a range of sources in the book to show language reflecting the society in which it is spoken. In the process, he explains why Russian water (a "she") becomes a "he" once you have dipped a teabag into her, and why, in German, a young lady has no sex, though a turnip has.

What's your new book about in a nutshell?

It's about why the world can look different in other languages. I try to explain why in the race to ascribe to our genes all the fundamental aspects of language and thought, the immense power of culture and nurture has been grossly underestimated.

How has it been underestimated?

For example, I argue that the mother tongue has considerable influence on the way we think and perceive the world. But there's a great deal of historical baggage attached to this question and so most respectable psychologists and linguists won't touch it with a bargepole.

It's like being a historian and talking about national character, isn't it?

Exactly. But I think we are grown up enough now to look at this question in a scientific way.

Can you give me an example of what you mean?

The most striking example involves what I call the language of space – how we describe the arrangement of objects around us. Take a sentence such as: "The child is standing behind the tree" – you'd imagine all languages would behave in the same way when describing something so simple. It's almost inconceivable that there would be languages that don't use such concepts at all. For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have had us believe that such egocentric concepts of space such as "in front of", "behind", "left" or "right" are the universal building blocks of language and cognition.

And aren't they universal?

Well, this remote aboriginal tongue turned up – called Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland. These people have a way of speaking about space that is incredibly odd, because they don't use any such concepts at all. So they would never say: "The child is behind the tree." Instead, they would say: "The child is north of the tree."

It also happens to be the language that gave us the word kangaroo.

Yes, it's famous for that, but it should be doubly famous. These people say things such as: "There's an ant on your northern foot", or: "I left the pen on the southern edge of the western table in your northern room in the house." You might think that their weird way of speaking about space must be a one-off. But the discovery of this language inspired a great deal of research and we learned of other peoples around the globe, from Mexico to Indonesia, who speak in a similar way.

What consequences does such a language have for your perception of space?

Growing up with such a language essentially develops in your brain a sort of GPS system, an unfailing sense of orientation, and the reason is fairly straightforward: if from the age at which you start talking, you have to be aware of the cardinal directions every waking second of your life in order to understand the most trivial things that people say around you, then your language trains you to pay constant attention to your orientation at all times. Because of this intense drilling, the sense of directions becomes second nature. If you ask the Guugu Yimithirr how they know where north is or where south is, they look at you in amazement, just as you would be flummoxed if I asked you how you know where in front of you is and where behind is.

Is your dominant interest to do with neurology or linguistics?

My focus is on the effects of language on thought, but I try to concentrate on those effects that can be demonstrated scientifically. Neurology may be an exciting subject, but we are still profoundly ignorant about its subject matter – we know little about how the brain works. So to show any influence of language on thought, we need to find examples where this influence has practical and measurable consequences in actual behaviour.

If we were having this conversation in 50 years' time, it would be much easier to talk about real neurology, because we would be able to scan the brain and find out exactly how each different language influences different aspects of thought. Our current ruminations about the subject would then look pitifully primitive. But progress can only come through trying and failing and failing better.

McCrum, Robert. 2010. "Guy Deutscher: Language alters how we think". Guardian. Posted: June 13, 2010. Available online:

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