Language Barriers

Linguistics is a science that is at best a bit murky, at worst nationalistic and highly political; it can become a quagmire, too. The language barriers I mention in the title refer to the barriers put up by linguists on their own understanding of languages. A new book tries to get rid of a few 19th century hold-overs embedded in our minds.

Linguist Guy Deutscher’s Through The Language Glass was published by Heinemann. Deutscher goes against the grain and bone of established linguists by taking a common sense look at language. The whole attempt is refreshing and doomed to failure as he gets caught in the quagmire of the science's own making. But if you like to take a fresh look at things you thought you knew, he certainly gives you the starting points to follow your own thoughts on language and its use.

American linguistic guru Noam Chomsky once proposed that we are born with an innate sense of grammar and that grammar in all languages was so similar that aliens coming to earth would assume that we all talk dialects of the same language. Similarities are a fickle thing, and small dissimilarities may hide profound differences in thinking; I wouldn't want to put my name under that statement. And as to an innate sense of grammar, he obviously wrote this at a time before modern journalists started butchering grammar on a daily basis.

Guy Deutscher concentrates on studies done by John Havilland on the language of the Guugu Yimithirr in Australia. The language is the originator of the word kangaroo as received in English hearing. But Havilland’s study covers a more interesting aspect of that language. It has no word for left, right, in front, or behind. All directions are given by reference to North, South, East, and West. While we are limited to indicate a direction by reference to us or a (maybe) known landmark, the Guugu Yimithirr are able to indicate any direction in an objective surrounding.

If you would follow a linguist great like George Steiner in his reasoning, the lack of our known directional words should mean that the Guugu Yimithirr miss out on understanding them. But contrariwise, they can understand them very well even if they might wonder at our self centered thinking or our inability to orient ourselves in this world. Steiner’s reasoning was that the Hebrews lacking a future tense in their language were unable to understand future as an abstract concept. I join Guy Deutscher in his verdict of ‘a harebrained notion’.

Guy Deutscher also goes into the use of names for colors and color descriptions; and usually arrives at similar results as with the directional words. The work suffers a bit under too much color, and by the fact that he often gets lost in his own arguments to the point where he starts to defend his enemies and attack his supporters. This to my unique sense of humor makes it just more interesting to read, though.

If you enjoy the use of language and are someone who likes juggling ideas and concepts, this book is a must read. It probably won’t answer a lot of questions you have concerning language use, but it will feed you loads of new questions to ponder. Guy Deutscher's failing to get out of the quagmire of linguistics doesn't detract from his attempt of walking in the right direction.