The author of The Unfolding of Language (2005) returns to address questions about how our languages shape our perceptions and ideas.
Deutscher enjoys himself in this romp through research and theory. Although Hebrew is his native language, he uses English artfully—and playfully—to make points, provide examples and slay sacred cattle, nowhere more entertainingly than in his systematic dispelling of the airy theories of American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who argued (but could not prove) that languages prevent their speakers from having certain thoughts. Deutscher begins by showing that the nature-vs.-nurture argument, though it has long raged in his discipline, is a straw dog—the reality is that nature and nurture shape language. To illustrate, he examines three major concepts: color (why are Homer’s color descriptions so odd?), orientation (some languages identify locations that are egocentric, others geocentric, others both) and gender (some languages employ gender heavily, others little or not at all). The author swiftly summarizes the theory and research in each area, then shows that for each, current thinking seems to have settled on a fundamental principle: “culture enjoys freedom within restraints.” He does not accept the notion of “universal grammar” fiercely advanced by Noam Chomsky, nor does he believe that culture determines all. He also takes Steven Pinker to task, declaring that his “facts are hardly quibbleable with [but] his environmental determinism is unconvincing.” Of great interest is Deutscher’s explanation of Guugu Yimithirr, the language of the Australian aboriginal tribe that contributed kangaroo to English. Guugu Yimithirr is completely geocentric in its orientation, meaning that speakers offer even the simplest of directions with compass references, not with personal ones—i.e., the chair is not on your left; it is in the northwest corner of the room. Deutscher also writes about how all languages are manifestly not equally complex, about what sorts of information a language compels its speakers to communicate (verb tenses in English) and about how gendered nouns can supply poets with richer metaphors.
Entertainingly executed with a near-erotic passion for language.