mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli

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Colour out of Space. (102)

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher.

Lord Blackblood, demon.
The Kahuna of Mirrors,
called the King in Red.

Well this book is wonderful. I'd been meaning to read it for ages-- I spotted it long ago & grabbed it, but somehow things just kept getting in the way. kingtycoon read it & recommended it to me, & I said "yeah!" because I had planned on read it, but still I put it off. Then in October I decided to read it in a mini book club with comeuppances, which was going swell-- I was about a third of the way through when NaNoWriMo struck. Finally that came to a close, & I finally finished reading Through the Language Glass this week. It was awesome-- I knew it was awesome when I started it, & it kept up the pace all the way through.

The book starts with some of the poetic anecdotes, such as Charles the V's statement that he spoke "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to Men, & German to [his] horse," which are of course all bunk, but charming none the less (1). Deutscher throws off some kerfluffle about language instinct, Chomskyian universal grammar, which I still think it poppycock-- I still adhere to my pet theory linking language to the Great Leap Forward to behavioral modernity (6). I think language caused neural reorganization 50,000 years ago, so sue me; I also think that is we are going to quibble over definitions of culture, I should through my hat in the ring (8). Culture is any non-physical technology. I think that is a useful summary.

The first real movement of Through the Language Glass concerns colour. More to the point, it starts with a discussion of what the hell "wine-dark sea" means (31). The sea is most certainly not wine coloured, by any stretch of the imagination, so why does Homer say it is? Well, it took a soon-to-be Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone, who in his free time as a member of Parliament has been writing an epic 1,700 page study of Homer, & was generally active in the academic field even after his eventual retirement (26, 49). The best sort of fellow. What concerns us is a tucked away little chapter about "Homer's perception & use of color," where he discusses Homer famously calling the sea the colour of wine, & also the colour of violets, & also sheep & oxen the colour of violets...& iron...& calls honey green...(33). He summarizes Homer's use of colour thus: about 170 cases of "black," about 100 cases of "white," then "red" 13 times, "yellow" ten times, "violet" six times (35). Gladstone concludes that the Ancient Greeks were colour blind, & that humans didn't evolve the use of colour vision until after they invented the range of coloured dyes (39). This of course isn't the case, but it is a cute direction to go. & it sparks a whole chain of events, leading up to the modern day-- these experiments are on-going. Deutscher has an interesting analogy with food-cubes that really drives the point home (73).

Now, I'm really interested in this stuff; the divisions of colours, the over-lap & the spinning out of new ones. When I read The Ice-Shirt I gobbled up Vollmann's canny use of blue & black-- words that the old Norse didn't have. They considered the colours the same-- blue was just a very light black, or rather more likely black was just a very dark blue. The same thing holds for a lot of other languages-- there is a lovecraftian demon in my Oubliette setting that is colloquially called the Crimson King, but in digging deeper into his name with Tom it came up that the Avestan word "vohu-gaona" better sums it up. It means black, but also red-- it means, blood coloured. Well, literally it means "the good colour," & it means the black of blood. This isn't uncommon-- a lot of languages are this way with black & red (44). That stuff, I eat it up, as well as stuff like the drink Chartreuse giving its name to the colour chartreuse. So neat. Etymology at its pinnacle.

The book switches gears with a list of quotes on the "nothing new under the sun" cliche, starting with Ancient Sumeria, moving to Ancient Egypt, Ecclesiastes, & the end of the BCEs & the early CEs (78). They are pretty cute. Here the book actually moves into synthesis, on the redemption of early colour studies & the incorporation into modern research. That done, Deutscher goes on to slam a lot of the casual axioms of linguistics, like the sacred cow of "equal complexity." It is done in a way that holds a great deal of humor, while still hitting the point home. On a side note, there is a bit on plurals that makes me think of some neat writing tricks-- having a tribe of people that plural on the article, like French-- so instead of "the dogs" it would be "thes dog" (111). I thought it was a neat idea, what can I tell you; I think about things through the logic of my worldbuilding, like how the languages on one of the continent mirror Greek, Latin, & Sanskrit-- their relationship to classical studies is brought up by Deutscher, even if it is mostly colonialist bullshit (132).

Part two really gets into the idea of language influencing thought. Deutscher rightly condemns Sapir-Whorf adherants as "mystical philosophers, fantasists, & post-modern charlatans[,]" which is alright with me, as a fantasist (131). Still, he pulls out of that nose dive & salvages some of the ideas of relativity in language-- & calls it the Boas-Jakobson theory (150). Franz Boas is a hero of mine from my college days-- he's one of those anthropologists that you can point at & say "there is a guy who had it figured out." He busted racist rackets & set the tone for modern anthropology-- he isn't someone who you have to understand in the context of their position in history-- he is out of that context, he breaks the mold. In the next bit, Deutscher talks about the Guugu Yimithirr, the guys who don't use egocentric directions like "left" or "right" ever, but always describe things as "north" or "south" or so forth (157). I can't remember where I'd read about them before (maybe Adam's Tongue?), but they are interesting, & really do provide strong arguments for the Boas-Jakobson school of "what must be expressed." You know, I also never realized that the part of (Western) child development where they learn their left & right is also when they stop writing letters backward-- it makes sense (191).

Deutscher doesn't stop with colour & space; he moves on to gender-- as in kind, including male & female but also inanimate, or other odder categories (197). I didn't know about the wide gulf between the linguistic definition & the sociological one-- it was interesting to me, & the disclaimer was well noted. Speaking of gender, quickly-- I thought Deutscher was a woman while I was reading this. It wasn't until I was writing this review that I say "Guy" was his first name. Jenny has Deutschers in her family tree-- somehow that must have trickled in. I'm quite charmed by Mark Twain's "Tale of the Fishwife & Its Sad Fate," which is reproduced in full, though I can see Deutscher is charmed by gendered nouns (202). & did you know that serious sailing periodicals, like Lloyd's List, have stopped using the pronoun "she" for boats (208)? Shocking. All in all, it wraps up with Deustcher returning to colour, hitting home his point with the trifecta he's laid out. It sells it; I'll happily call myself a Boas-Jakobsonian. There is an appendix on the biology of the eye, which as one last thing mentions that the primate eye is speculated to have evolved the ability to see yellow in order to find fruit better (247). Angiosperms-- plants are having sex with you, all the time. Dang it.
Tags: books, deutscher, haikus, linguistics

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