Through the Language Glass04 Aug 2011
Does the language you speak impact the way you think?
This question has occupied academics for centuries. Some people perceive deep differences between languages, which affect the minds of the people who speak them. Others argue that the differences are superficial and, linguistically speaking, all humans are essentially equal.
I've often wondered how programming languages affect the people who program them, so I found Guy Deutscher's' delightful book "Through the Language Glass" both fascinating and enlightening.
He explores two centuries of research from William Gladstone puzzling over the lack of colour in The Iliad and The Odyssey, to the latest brain imaging experiments.
Gladstone's noticed the black-and-white nature of the Homer's world; blues or greens are never mentioned. One popular explanation at the time was that the ancient Greeks were partially colourblind and full colour vision had yet to evolve. Scientists even pointed to the lack of colour words in many primitive languages around the world as evidence. Obviously, we now know that evolution doesn't work so fast. Differences in colour vocabulary reflect cultural rather than biological development.
So where are we on this debate today? Noam Chomsky has argued for the past 50 years that the universal rules of human grammar are encoded in our genes and variation between languages has no cognitive consequence - all languages are equally complex.
In fact languages vary markedly in complexity. In general small, illiterate societies have languages with smaller vocabularies but more complex grammatical structures. Such differences can affect the way people think.
The latest brain scanning experiments show that If a language distinguishes between two colours, as Russian does between dark and light blue, then its speakers experience more of a difference between them than people whose language uses the same word for both.
And, then after all this, I saw Mark Pagel's TED talk postulating that language is a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation:
Thanks to Mark McKergow for recommending this book.