Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass

Guy Deutscher

Guy Deutscher (Wikimedia)

I had a whole post written today about a recent statement made by American actor David Hasselhoff (don’t ask), but it got very muddled, so I decided to scrap it.  In the meantime, I’d like to recommend a book I’m reading, Through the Language Glass, by Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher. The book deals with the impact of culture on language and vice versa.

The first half looks at the way different languages describe color. The important point? Aboriginal cultures have significantly fewer words for colors than modern Indo-European languages do. Many indigenous cultures, for example, have no word for blue.

In the Victorian era, of course, scientists concluded there was a biological deficiency among “primitives” that impacted their ability to identify different hues. It was the Victorian era, after all. It seemed impossible that a language could have fewer words for color than English.  In reality, this discrepancy is merely a product of some cultures valuing color discernment more than others.

I mention this because it has made me consider my own latent prejudices when it comes to accents. Or rather, people’s perception of accents. It seem inconceivable to me that someone could not identify the difference between a Dublin accent and a Belfast one, or understand how a rhotic accent is different from one that’s non-rhotic.*  But such people exist, and it certainly is no reflection of their intelligence. And it may be more a matter of not having the right labels than not being able to “hear” different accents.

Anyway, I may have more to say about this book in relation to accents and dialects when I’m done.   Until then, I recommend picking up a copy.  It’s a good, entertaining read.

*Ed. note:  Just to be clear, I’m implying my own ignorance here, not that of people who aren’t as preoccupied with accents as I am!

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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5 Responses to Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    “It seems inconceivable to me that someone could not identify the difference between a Dublin accent and a Belfast one, or understand how a rhotic accent is different from one that’s non-rhotic. But such people exist, and it certainly is no reflection of their intelligence.”

    Many such people exist. In fact, I used to be one of them. I imagine you were like that once too. I would have a really hard time believing that you’ve always been able to hear the difference between Dublin and Belfast accents unless you have some connection with Ireland. I had to train my ears to hear the differences between those accents and others. Isn’t that what you did? I think almost anyone else could learn to hear the differences between many accents too. I agree that it is not a reflection of someone’s intelligence. It helps to be extremely interested in accents though, as I am.

    • trawicks says:

      Oh, I most definitely used to be like that. I don’t want to make it sounds like I was simply born with the ability to notice such things. I’m often fascinated, in fact, by how accents that were completely incomprehensible to me a few years ago now sound crystal clear. But I often find that, in the present, I delude myself into thinking that anybody can hear these differences. Just as the color “blue” seems like an innate concept, when in fact it isn’t at all!

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I think telling the difference between rhotic and non-rhotic is a lot easier. I’m sure a lot of people can do that without any training. But a lot of times people can hear that something’s different between their accent and another accent, but they can’t describe the difference because they don’t have the technical vocabulary (once again, that doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent). I wasn’t offended by your what you wrote; I just wanted to know if you had some amazing accent talent since you were really young.

  3. Stuart says:

    The point about the lack of technical vocabulary to describe the differences perceived is particularly valid. I was stunned when I learned that “rhotic” had only made into the OED as of June last year. If a not particularly arcane or technical term such as “rhotic” took so long to make it into the sanctum sanctorum, the great masses of the linguistically uninformed (of which masses I am a lifetime member) can indeed be excused for not knowing how to describe differences more precisely than “you talk funny”.

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