“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”
So said the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, who, as a seasoned polyglot, ought to have known. However, the idea that language somehow reflects cultural difference is an interesting cliché. It’s a natural assumption to make that because people speak a different language they must think differently too. In fact, I’ve always wondered about the extent to which one changes personality when speaking another language: physically, you’re clearly the same person, but at what point exactly does a thought cease to be an abstract thing and crystallise into the rigid confines of a particular language? Depending on where you stand, this could occur at the very last moment before you open your mouth, in which case language doesn’t really affect the thought itself, or, it could occur at a deeper level of consciousness, in which case the thing you are trying to express may itself be sculpted by the vehicle of its expression.
Deutscher approaches the issue from a strictly scientific perspective. Not for him the airy generalisations about the musicality of Italian breeding a nation of poets, or the harsh logic of German providing fertile ground for the intellectual rigour of philosophers. Instead, Deutscher looks at specific examples of linguistic interpretation that can be held up to scrutiny. He then uses these examples as a platform to assess how language affects the way in which human beings view the world.
One such example is the evolution of how different cultures describe colour. It turns out, for instance, that Homer was extremely one-dimensional when it came to using colour in his work. This was seized upon by early linguists as evidence that although our perception of colour may not evolve as such, our need or desire to distinguish between different areas of the colour spectrum does. Another way of looking at it is this: as a culture becomes more sophisticated it tends to refine its language to allow for a more precise distinction of colour. As such, early civilisations always had a word for red that was used a lot because red is the colour of blood, but not a word for blue because blue was only really appreciated as a colour in its own right with the invention of colour dyes. Colours were also lumped together, depending on their usage: the early anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers was astonished to find that on the islands of the Torres Straits, people used the same word to describe the colours black and blue. An overcooked bit of meat is black, but so is the sky. Bizarre though this may sound, we still use the word ‘blue’ to describe a huge chunk of the colour spectrum, preceded in some cases by the words ‘light’ or ‘dark’, as though someone realised retrospectively that the two shades were not in fact very similar.
If this makes Deutscher sound like he is only interested in the minute detail of linguistic expression, then I’m doing him a considerable disservice. In his exploration of language, he seeks to establish concrete instances of how the way we see things is predetermined to an extent by the lens of language. In doing so, the scope of his observations reaches far beyond differences in colour schematics, and embraces the murky relationship between the biological and cultural evolution of humanity.