Through the Looking Glass

by Guy Deutscher

I fell in love with Guy Deutscher’s earlier book The Unfolding of Language; it goes into the short list of the best books I’ve ever read. So when his newest book came out, I pounced on it. I had just received a gift of a Kindle, so I decided to try the Kindle version of the book. Big mistake! A goodly portion of the book discusses color vision, using color illustrations. The Kindle is a black-and-white device, so the color illustrations were not included. The text did refer to them being somewhere else – apparently as a download for use on my computer, but the Amazon user interface did nothing to make me aware of this, so I never did see any of those image files. Without them, the book was much emasculated. It’s still a great book, but I have learned a hard lesson here: don’t buy nonfiction for Kindle unless you’re certain that the book includes no illustrations.

What about the book itself? It presents the basic thesis that the language we speak does have some subtle effects on the way we think, but those effects are unexpected. Language affects our thinking by what it forces us to think about. For example, many languages have strong gender systems. German, Spanish and French, for example, assign a gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) to every noun. There actually is a logic to how these genders were assigned long ago, but nowadays the words have drifted so far from their original signification that the gender systems seem crazy, utterly arbitrary. Mark Twain made great fun of the German gender system in his essay, The Awful German Language. What’s important, though, is that these gender assignments do indeed affect the thinking of their speakers. Experiments have been carried out in which speakers of the various languages are asked to select the best fit of various polar opposites to objects with different gender assignments in different languages. For example, the word for bed in Spanish and German has opposite genders -- and it turns out that the adjectives that speakers of these two languages use to describe these objects differ in a gender-biased manner.

A great many such experiments have been carried out, all rather subtle, and this book compiles and reports their results. The end result, I think, can be summarized as follows: language does indeed affect thought, but it does so in subtle ways that are in fine not terribly important. Much more interesting, I think, is the study carried out some years earlier by a scientist in Taiwan who compared the contrapositive thinking of students who spoke only Chinese, only English, or both Chinese and English. The Chinese language doesn’t handle subjunctivity very well, whereas English does handle subjunctivity fairly well. Sure enough, Chinese speakers were not as good at answering test questions involving subjunctivity in the form of contrapositive matters – for example: “If Al Gore had won the 2000 American presidential election, would America have invaded Iraq in 2003?” English speakers have no problem answering this question with ‘no’, but Chinese speakers tend to get gummed up on the point that Al Gore did not win the election.

This review is too short, but I just don’t have much to say about this excellent book. The Kindle experience with it was just so off-putting that I don’t feel that I got as much out of the book as I could have. Perhaps it’s just the shock of the new approach. Theoretically, the ability to search the content electronically should make it easier to consult the book in future. In practice, I found the implementation clumsy.