Through the Language Glass Book Summary - Through the Language Glass Book explained in key points
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Through the Language Glass summary

Guy Deutscher

Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

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    Through the Language Glass
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    Language reflects culture.

    If you’ve ever read the works of the Ancient Greek poet Homer, you might have noticed that he never employs a word that could be taken to mean “blue.” Why? Because color is one area where language reflects culture. The Ancient Greeks, as you’ll soon discover, had a very different culture of color than we do today.

    Based on the words for color used in The Iliad and The Odyssey, the English prime minister and scholar William Ewart Gladstone argued that the ancient Greeks’ sense of color must have differed from ours.

    In his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, published in 1858, Gladstone argued that the Greeks perceived the world in something closer to black-and-white than technicolor.

    According to Gladstone, Homer wasn’t merely exercising poetic license when he chose his words – words that seem strange by today’s standards. Rather, like the rest of the Ancient Greeks, he had an undeveloped perception of color, largely confined to light and dark. This is why he described things like honey and freshly-picked twigs as chlôros (green), a color neither black nor white, to give a sense of their paleness and freshness.

    Further adding to Gladstone’s case was the fact that Homer made little or no reference to color when we might otherwise expect it, such as when speaking of spring flowers in a field. Moreover, he generally preferred elementary forms of color – black and white – over others. For example, melas (black) can be found 170 times in his works, whereas xanthos (yellow) appears only ten times.

    This led Gladstone to claim that, at some point, mankind underwent an education of the eye – that is, we learned to perceive differences in color – that hadn’t yet happened in Ancient Greece. But why?

    In Ancient Greece, artificial colors, produced through paints and dyes, were still in their infancy. For instance, Ancient Greeks rarely saw blue (apart from the sea and sky), as blue eyes, blue dyes and truly blue flowers were rare. Perhaps this is why Homer never uses a word for “blue.”

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    What is Through the Language Glass about?

    Through the Language Glass (2010) explores the many ways in which language both reflects and influences our culture. By exploring the different ways that languages deal with space, gender and color, the book demonstrates just how fundamentally the language you speak alters your perception of the world.

    Best quote from Through the Language Glass

    Culture enjoys freedom within constraints.

    —Guy Deutscher
    example alt text

    Who should read Through the Language Glass?

    • People interested in language and how it affects us
    • Anyone interested in how the brain works
    • Linguistics students

    About the Author

    Guy Deutscher is a linguist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. In addition to his numerous academic contributions, Deutscher is also the author of The Unfolding of Language.

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