To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.
Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:
Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodied
Most of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.
I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.
But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.
The rise of similarity judgments
That is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.
Most languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.
It is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).
The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.
Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?
A Shocking Proposal
The paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).
Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.
If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.
Guy Deutscher (2010). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books