Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Words Cannot Express

Illustration by Serge Bloch


Why The World Looks Different in Other Languages
By Guy Deutscher
304 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $28


Deutscher starts with the puzzling fact that many languages lack words for what (to English speakers) seem to be basic colors. For anyone interested in the development of ideas, Deutscher’s first four chapters make fascinating reading. Did you know that the British statesman William Gladstone was also an accomplished Greek scholar who, noting among other things the surprising absence of any term for “blue” in classical Greek texts, theorized that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans when those texts were composed? Or that a little-known 19th-century philologist named Lazarus Geiger made profound and surprising discoveries about how languages in general divide up the color spectrum, only to have his discoveries ignored and forgotten and then rediscovered a century later? Did you know that Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I psychiatrist, William Rivers, carried out the earliest psychological experiments to test the precise relationship between the colors people could name and the colors they actually saw?
Deutscher does not merely weave little-known facts into an absorbing story. He also takes account of the vast changes in our perceptions of other races and cultures over the past two centuries. Although the strange sequence in which color terms appear in the world’s languages over time — first black and white, then red, then either green or yellow, with blue appearing only after the first five are in place — still has no full explanation, Deutscher’s suggestion that the development of dyes and other forms of artificial coloring may be involved is as convincing as any other, making color terms the likeliest candidate for a culture-induced linguistic phenomenon.
[the rest of the article HERE]


J.Garcia said...

By naming a color do you seperate yourself from it?

Scott Abbott said...

in an odd way, you do.

language enables us to see and understand things, which is the point, perhaps, of the article.

but it also disables us as we categorize things and then think we're done with them. that's blue! okay, move on.