Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Through the Language Glass. Guy Deutscher. Breaking the chains.

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Breaking the chains of language.

Through the Language Glass. Guy Deutscher. William Heinemann. 2010.

In the 1970s the left became fascinated with the “linguistic turn” of structuralism and post-structuralism. At the bottom of the pile of ideas heaped up by Theory was the premise that Language (capitalised) could never directly grasp the Real. That just as the ‘signifier’ (words, symbols, icons) slipped for ever over the “signified” (meaning) there was never a point at which it could be “buttoned down” onto a stable reference in the world.

Realism, which from the late 1970s enjoyed a vogue amongst opponents of this ‘turn’ began modestly by Roy Enfield and Ted Benton, developed its own luxuriant and incomprehensible metaphysics of ‘generative mechanisms’ in the later writings of Roy Bhaskar. But many of us enjoyed the polemics between, say, Norman Geras and the half-forgotten Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, on the contrasting merits of a Marxist materialism based on the existence of external objects ‘post-Marxist’ discourse theory, which ‘brackets’ this.

This was harmless in itself. Nobody is ever going to settle for once and all the issue of the existence of the “real”. Perhaps Kant was right on this all along. But the idea of linguistic relativity lived on in what was once known as ‘post-Modernism’ and enjoys an after life in what is “post” the post. It came to imply that language truly is the limit of the world. Different languages are so incommensurable that they refer to a different “real” (bracketed again, this time for good).

Some famous distinctions behind this, the “prison house of language” approach, are taken (legitimately or not) from the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand Saussure (1857 – 1913). Language is considered as a system in itself, Langue operates through Parole (speech). As a system we can consider it “diachronically” (historically) or – as it is present – “synchronically” – as a chain of signs and meanings, moving, or “slipping”, through difference, to make up Langue and our particular speech acts (Parole). Many non-linguists concluded from this abstract account, that at some point – though no follower of Saussure has ever provided the time and date – the elements of a language develop their own internal logic “outside” of history. Radical literary critics, post-structuralist philosophers, and social theorists, from the 1970s onwards, embraced Theory and littered their writings with Discourse.

Politics and Language.

It is important to consider the political uses these ideas have had. One conclusion was that language was the prime reality of social conflict. In The Culture of Complaint (1993) Robert Hughes poked fun at the postmodernist left. More seriously he observed that their relativism (reinforced by the ‘linguistic turn’) led to moral consequences. When Iran pronounced a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie “the more politically correct among them felt it was wrong to criticise a Muslim country, no matter what it did. At home in America, such folk knew it was the height of sexist impropriety to refer to a young female as a “girl” instead of a “woman” Abroad in Tehran, however, it was more or less OK for a cabal of regressive theocrats to insist on the chador, to cut off thieves’ hands and put out the eyes of offenders on TV, and to murder novelists as State policy”. (Page 99)

Stanley Fish’s response to these issues, that there is “no such thing as free speech” – Rushdie’s in the occurrence – outside of the social conventions governing language, illustrates moral bankruptcy that can result from linguistic relativism. Whatever the other merits, and faults of his approach, everything takes place within “discourse”, including the ‘silence’ that surrounds speech.

The silence has to do with the shape of any discourse. As Hobbes brilliantly points out again and again in his Leviathan, thought of a sequential and rational kind can only proceed when some set of stipulated definitions has been put at the beginning and established. Unless you have definitions of your topic, of your subject, demarcations of the field that you are about to explore, you cannot proceed because you have no direction. Hobbes also points out that such stipulative definitions are necessarily exclusionary. They exclude other possibilities, other possible ways of defining the field from which you might then have proceeded; since speech and reasoning can only occur when something is already in place and since the something that is already in place will be in place of something else that could have been in place, that something else which isn’t there is the silent background against which the discourse resounds.Here.

More recently we have seen supporters of Islam who want to have it both ways. Those defending the censorship of Jesus and Mo cartoons have also restored to Sausssure.

On the one hand an Islamist declared that language – synchronically – is indeed a system with great internal weight, in which contested meanings have social implications. Hence the need to ban offence against “oppressed” religions. On the other hand Muslim theology is ground on the idea that the classical Arabic of the Qur’an offers a privileged window onto reality. With echoes of Aristotle, they assert that these “signs” are genuine reflections of the order of the universe, bolstered by the unique, “divinely created”, morphology of this Semitic language. Contrary to the axiom that all truth can be translated, it is claimed that its verities cannot be fully rendered into other languages.

How Language Unfolds.

Those interested in Language rather than languages have dominated much of this discussion. In The Unfolding of Language (2005) Guy Deutscher, a linguist who specialises in the ancient speech of Mesopotamia and the near East joins writers like Stephen Pinker who address a wide audience on both topics. Pinker has discussed the actual way words have meaning and are used, as referents to cut through the sterile question, “Are meanings in the world or in the head?” (The Stuff of Thought. 2008). Deutscher looked at the way historically the division between diachronic and synchronic aspects of language is artificial.

In the Unfolding he examined how ‘grammar’ evolves. How words and particles fuse with nouns to become declinations or how they build up into conjugations is fascinating in it. In one notable, and lengthy, section Deutscher traces out the possible origins of the emetic verbal “template” system, and finds their basis far from divine. Simple features, a trend to take the easier way of pronouncing and saying something, can wear words down, while bits fuse together and create new structures. The “mind’s craving for order” then builds them up “grammatically”

These processes are going on today – though slowed down by the gravitational pull of writing and the expansion of languages with millions of speakers who need a norm to communicate. From I’m going to “gonna” we can see how this operates. The Unfolding of Language is studded with other examples.

The book concludes,

“The accumulated pressure of such spontaneous action nonetheless creates powerful untiring forces of change: the flow towards abstraction, and erosion in meaning and sounds. The combination of these forces operates on language like a relentless bleaching and compressing machine. To increase expressive range, solid nouns and verbs are drafted as metaphors for abstract concepts, but with frequent use their original vitality fades and they turn into place grammatical elements bleached of independent meaning. And to heighten the effect, words are piled up into new constructions, but through the grind of repetition the piles are gradually worn down, and can be compressed into a single word again.”(Page 261)

Deutscher refers to Sausssure in the context of his celebrated (in linguistics) reconstruction of ancient Indo-European phonology and his prediction of a sound discovered after his death – in Hittite cuneiform. But one can see that taking the standpoint that language should be studied, as a system complete in itself, without considering the real way in which morphology develops and is developing can only be an abstraction. Take this – post-modernist style – as an ontological claim about speech, and you are in danger of losing sight of the thing itself.

How to Talk about Language.

Through the Language Glass (2010) won an audience through its discussion of colour words. A large part of the book is devoted to the fascinating story of how we name the spectrum of the rainbow. It begins with Gladstone (the Prime Minister that is) and his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, (1858). Gladstone claimed that the ancient Greeks had a different sense of colour to us.

Through close (and exhausting) analysis the Prime Minister demonstrated that Homer talked of the water off the coast as the “wine-dark sea” He had a very small colour vocabulary, and used very crude terms, black and white, over all others, and various other features such as the use of the same word to denote colours to us, which are completely different. The solution to this mystery was that “The sensitivity to differences in colours, he suggested, is an ability that evolved fully only in more recent history.”(Page 37) The ancients were in effect colour-blind. Sensitivity to colour “evolved” in historic times. Neo-Darwinians suggested that the eye itself had undergone a change. Using a version of Lamarckian evolutionary theory they suggested that it changed over time as an increased ability to distinguish shades grew.

It is an interesting story. Evidence indicates that the earliest literature (including three Bible and Sanskrit documents) shows a similar lack of words for colours. Some cultures have a similar lack of distinctive words. The effort to understand this, balancing culture (as we have manipulated colours over time, through dyes) and the biological fact that the sense of sight has remained the same, since we can first identify the sense organs, is deftly performed. Colour-words have changed, there is some kind of evolution, but it is part of social and not natural evolution.

For us Through the Language Glass is more significant in other respects. The issues we began with are unravelled with exceptional clarity. These have had wider implications, including political ones. Indeed, from the deeper implications of linguistic relativism, to the whole approach we should adopt to language, Deutscher offers such a blinding flash of good sense that he deserves the widest possible readership.

“A nation’s language, so we are often told. Reflects its culture, psyche, and modes of thought.”(Page 1) This, he states, is harmless if talked about at dinner parties. In fact it is intensely irritating. As Deutscher later observes, “the most inspired charlatans, the most virtuous con artists, not t o mention hordes of run-of-the-mill crackpots have been drawn to expostulate on the influence of the mother tongue on its speakers’ thought.”(Page 21) Indeed we suffered a deluge of this last year when people waxed lyrical about the beauty and influence on the Nation of the English of the King James Bible.

The more we consider this more bogus the claim becomes “The only problem with this impressive international unanimity is that it breaks down as soon as thinkers move on from the general principles to reflect on the particular qualities (or otherwise) of particular languages, and about what these linguistic qualities can tell us about the qualities (or otherwise) of particular nations.”(Page 3)

Beyond claims about ‘nations’ we have the deeper assertion that linguistic structures mould our minds. Nietzsche once talked of freeing ourselves from the tyranny of our grammar, but it was at one time popular to claim that this was impossible.

The most notorious case is well known, not just in linguistics but also in social theory. The ‘Sapir-Whorf” theory claimed that our ability to talk about time and space is shaped by our language to the extent that our whole picture of the universe is framed by our speech.

Edward Sapir began by trumpeting the significance of widely different grammars on thought. Lee Whorf (1897-1941) claimed that the American Indian tribe, the Hopi had no time structures. A whole cosmology of flowing undifferentiated temporality was written into their grammar. This showed, as New Agers no doubt still repeat, our “rational” division of chronology was not Natural.

But it was all untrue. Whorf’s claims were brutally refuted by Ekkehardt Malotki (Hopi Field Notes 1980). He pointed out that the tribe indeed had a time and aspect system. Even more damming was the revelation that Whorf relied on practically no evidence – the words of a single Hopi speaker.

George Steiner relied on equally shaky evidence for a related claim that the ‘unique’ Indo-European tense-system allowed people to project hopes into the future. Steiner also wrote that Biblical Hebrew, with its apparent lack of this tense, had a timeless quality, which affects the whole nature of prophecy (this is repeated in Steiner’s Introduction to the Everyman edition of the Old Testament) By contrast Indo-European tenses, “allowed people to become truly human, defining them “the mammal that uses the future of the verb ‘to be’…”(Page 144) Steiner waxed lyrical, “If our system of tenses was more fragile,’ ‘ he said, ‘we might not endure’ (he was clearly touched by prophetic inspiration for dozens of languages that do not posses a future tense are becoming extinct every year.”(Page 5)

Steiner reached the height of linguistic relativist absurdity with comments about linguistic gender. “The Semitic gender system in verbs affects, apparently, the whole social structure. Indo-European verbs, by contrast, make an “entire anthropology of sexual equality” possible in European verbs by contrast. Deutscher acidly remarks that Turkish, Indonesian and Uzbek, which makes no gender distinctions whatsoever, from verbs to pronouns, would be, were this true, be even more “sexually enlightened”.

Where he goes astray is on George Orwell. In 1984 it’s written, “The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Deutscher comments, “ Why stop there? “Why not abolish the word ‘greed’ as a quick fix for the world’s economy, or do away with the word ‘pain’ to save billions on paracetamol, or confine the word ‘death’ to the dustbin as an instant formula for universal immortality?” (Page 148)

There is a difference between “modes of thought” and doing away with “things”. Orwell’s claim is contestable , given the ability of all language to express any idea. But he hardly claimed that Ingsoc abolished pain and death!

Facts and Language.

Deutscher points out that the ‘facticty’ of any sentence can be expressed in any language. We can talk about the future using the present, as in I am going to London tomorrow. Indeed we will often talk about the future in this was way in other European languages, from French, (using the same verb, to go) je vais…and in German we will even more frequently use of the present for the future.

If we lack a word in a language, it does not mean that we cannot indicate the thing, the action or the feeling by other (perhaps longer) explanations. Pre-technological cultures will not have terms for televisions, but can develop them (as we did drawing on Greek and Latin). We could equally (which Deutscher does not note) say that we drop words when the things are no longer used. The decline of rural regional dialects in Britain is associated with the dying out of agricultural work and the words used for this, as is the tendency of languages like Occitan to adopt French terms and lose its own specificity as its rich hoard of expressions relating to the countryside have little reference in a more and more urban world.

Deutscher summarises this by saying, following the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey am not in what they may convey’. The crucial differences between languages, in other words, are not in what each language allows its speakers to express – for in theory any languages could express anything but in what information each languages obliges its speakers to express.”(Page 151)

This is true. It is of immense importance for, say literary criticism and a range of other disciplines dealing with “discourse”. It is the stuff of poetry and literature. It forms part of one of the objections that Deutscher uses against the Chomsky view that ‘universal grammar’ is already inscribed in the mind. But is not the same as saying that we inhabit different cosmological worlds.

If the forms of language do not dictate our cosmology what is? Through the Looking Glass is less successful in attempting to convince us that – that the have distinct cultural and psychological effects. Steven Pinker suggested that these would be largely trivial. Deutscher indicates the small numbers of culture who do not uses “egocentric” directions (left-right) and prefer “geographical” coordinates. He states that, “they affect orientation skills and even patterns of memory”. (Page 193)

Deutscher claims that languages with gender may affect the way people perceive objects – bridges look feminine to Germans and masculine to Spaniards – though nowhere indicates what Bantu language classificatory systems (which are vastly more complex and unrelated to these categories) may do to their speakers. He even asserts that the lack of finite dependant clauses in the earliest written material may indicate that grammar itself may develop entirely new forms over time. This raises another objection – that a similar feature, technically called ‘parataxis’, marks the earliest documents on Old English. This suggests it is writing that helps evolve the syntax of dependent clauses. What it tells us about Language as such is unclear if we simply leave it at that.

Language as a Black Box.

Today people are increasingly looking at the interactions between different languages. If there is linguistic relativism around it tends not to be of the “sealed culture” type from which it originated. It is expressed through a tendency to exaggerate the importance of words over thing. Yet the premise, that language forms the limit of our world, is also questioned. Perhaps one day what’s left of post-modernism will catch up to this.

Speculations about language have not disappeared and will not disappear. But caution is probably the best approach. Deutscher observes “… we are nowhere near being able to understand what is ‘said’ in the brain. We have no idea how any specific concept, label, grammatical rule, Colour impression, orientations strategy, or gender association is actually coded.”(Page 238) We remain as ignorant as ever about the “working of the brain”. He concludes, “Future historians will find this book embarrassing, if they find “the relevant brain circuits and see directly how concepts are formed and how perception, memory, association, and any other aspects of thought are affected by the mother tongue.”(Page 238) We remain to “grope in the dark.”(P 239)


Written by Andrew Coates

January 25, 2014 at 12:51 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Any relation to Issac?


    January 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm

  2. I read somewhere once that there was no word for the colour ‘orange’ in English (and presumably other European languages) under the accession of William of Orange, it was simply regarded as a shade of yellow, but as it is the Royal colour of his house it was decided to use the term in everyday speech. I wonder if artists would have had a term for reddish-yellow prior to this? Although thinking about it, I don’t recall seeing orange used much in early paintings. Just a quibble Andrew, the concluding statement reminds me of what is known as ”philosophical materialism’, that is that thought is a material event. I know we can record neuronal activity in the brain when a person is thinking, and very recently it experiments have demonstrated that people can control external objects through the power of thinking, but I can’t see how we will be able to tell what a person is thinking through knowing the pattern of firing of neurons. For one thing, we would need to know all their memories and sensations. Also, you mention that Uzbek, Turkish and Indonesian do not have gendered words, is this because they are non-IndoEuropean? I believe the gender system of Indo-European languages is a hangover from I-E which had three genders. Is Chinese and Japanese gendered or other non-European languages?

    Sue R

    January 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

  3. The main gendered language families are Indo-European and Semitic.

    English, Afrikaans and Farsi, have lost their gender systems.

    Yes it is a scientistic approach at the end.

    I have not thought that one through yet!

    Andrew Coates

    January 25, 2014 at 5:44 pm

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