I’ve recently finished a second reading of Guy Deutscher’s “Through the Language Glass“. While seemingly a simple popular science book, I consider it to be a very important text to read, and I see potential in what it says that I’m not even sure the author himself sees with me (more on that later).
I assume “spoilers” are not an issue for a popular science book, so let me start by giving away the point of the book – it studies the effects our languages have on the way we think, but not in the magical hand-waving style associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but in an objective, empirical way, based on the principle that some languages force us to be aware of some information and some don’t. For programmers this should be quite clear – every programming language (for the most part) can theoretically do the same things, but unlike the idealist, hippy-ish linguistics professors described by Deutscher, programmers are notorious in their love for describing why their language is just *better* at doing *better* things; not because it’s impossible to do them in another language, but because the grammar of some languages encourages different actions compared to others. Like most things in programming, no one says it better than Joel Spolsky – check out his classic “Making Wrong Code Look Wrong“.
My only problem with Deutscher’s book is that he did not go far enough. He gives two fascinating examples of his thesis, color perception and space orientation: people who speak languages with more distinct words for colors naturaly train themselves to notice the differences between those colors; and people who speak languages where cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) are used for orientation rather than personal directions (right, left, forward, backward) have to develop a sort of “inner compass” – a strong ability to recognize cardinal directions using any hints in the environment around them (this exists only in a tiny handful of small tribal languages, in case you were puzzled). These are both fascinating examples, but the problem is that he does not give any more.
In some sense, I suspect that this is an example of the difference between scientist and engineer. Deutscher, as a linguist, wants to study the world. He laments the loss of small tribal langauges that will deprive us of the ability to discover more such unique ways of viewing the world. I, meanwhile, as an engineer, consider the existence of tribes with such ideas to be a fun curiosity, but I see no reason to limit myself to existing languages. Rather than ask what kind of differences exist between different usages of language, I want to ask: what differences can exist? Can we change our language in a way that makes us more likely to understand some things?
Personally, I’ve been experimenting with these things for many years, already before my first encounter with Deutscher’s book. I’ve always aimed at using the most specific color words possible, and still feel a slight cringe when I hear, for example, someone describe olive, peach or lilac colors as green, orange or purple respectively. I’ve made concious attempts to use cardinal directions in navigating around the world (admittedly, the arrival of smartphones and their tempting GPS navigation systems was a setback for that project. I should really be less lazy). But I believe the potential exists far beyond that.
Not long ago, I heard a researcher named David Krakauer on Sam Harris’s podcast. He spoke of a concept called cognitive artifacts: some ideas, like the invention of writing or our current number system, can change the way we think so drastically that it opens new doors for us, improves our intelligence. This is a serious oversimplification and I strongly recommend listening to the actual podcast, but the point is – the linguistic differences Deutscher describes fit very well into Krakauer’s concept of cognitive artifacts. When we consider “the sky is black” to be a wrong sentence compared to “the sky is blue”, we force our mind to be more attentive to colors. When we consider the number 427 to be composed of 4*100 + 2*10 + 7, we force our mind to think in a way that makes arithmetic much easier than if we thought about it as CDXXVII (meaning, 500 – 100 + 10 + 10 + 5 + 1 + 1). And the big question for me is: what can we do next? As I’ve said before, I don’t want to stop at studying the existing world like Deutscher; I want to think about what we can change to bring even bigger revolutions. What will be the next writing, the next number system?
Just as a small example, there is one thing I’ve always wondered – our use of the word “tree”, compared to the word “animal”. The group of organisms we include in the category “tree” is no less diverse than that in the category “animal”; however, we use both in very different ways. If I point my finger at a sycamore and tell my friend “look at the person standing next to that tree”, it would sound perfectly natural. Yet, if instead of a sycamore it would be a horse, it would sound quite strange to say “look at the person standing next to that animal”. If it’s a horse, we’ll call it a horse, not an animal; but we have no problem referring to an oak, or a eucaliptus, or even a palm, as simply a tree. What would happen if we change that? What would happen if today we stopped using the word “tree” in any context where we would not use the word “animal”?
You might say that would be to difficult, they all look so similar! But that’s exactly why you should read Deutscher’s book. It’s difficult *for us* to find north in an ordinary city environment, or to tell the difference between an oak and an ash (or not, but let’s assume you’re all city boys/girls like me), because we’re not normally required to do that; when we teach our children about the world, we show them endless books and toys that teach them “this is a dog”, “this is an elephant”, “this is a cow”, and then – “this is a tree”. Growing up like that, it seems obvious that there is a huge difference between a dog and a cheetah, but a tiny difference between a birch and a poplar; but is that really true? Recently, on a trip with friends, my friends’ infant daughter was excited to notice some pandas next to us – that was somewhat surprising, considering the fact that those were, in fact, cows; but what seems obvious to us now, with our many years of education, is not at all obvious to an infant who is still trying to make a general sense of the information presented to her. Her parents immediately laughed and corrected her, and she will probably easily understand the difference between a cow and a panda quite quickly. But what would happen if she just said those were “animals”? And her parents said the same, and her books said the same, and she was never expected to actually make the judgement of which kind of animal she was seeing? In that alternative world, I would be very surprised if people were so sharp at differentiating cows from pandas. And in an alternative world where we stop using words like “tree”, “bush”, or “flower” in any context where a more specific word can be used – we will get to know our planet’s biodiversity much more, without making any concious effort.
Again – trees and flowers are only a small example. The real challenge is in finding ideas that completely change the way we think – things like how our ways of representing words and numbers on paper was a complete revolution in our thinking. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.