Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher
I can understand people who feel that Through the Language Glass didn’t quite fulfill its promise. The subtitle might be more accurately, “does the world look different in other languages?” And the answer is yes, but in a limited way that won’t be satisfying to those who want the answer to be an unequivocal yes. People feel that the world is different (for them) in different languages, and even that they are different in other languages, but there just isn’t the scientific data to back those feelings up.
(For me, and this is a brief digression, I do suspect that those who “feel different” when they speak other languages aren’t taking into account context. For example, say you speak Hebrew with your family and English in school. You are a different person in those two contexts, but not because of the language you speak. You’re adapting yourself to the situation, including the language. I suspect that even years after that division is so clear, where you might speak Hebrew to someone in the workplace, the associations remain.)
Anyway, I found the book itself a bit dense and prone to repetition, but overall, very interesting. I loved the discussion of the issue of colour in Homer’s work, as it’s something that inevitably came up when discussing his epithets in class. Why “wine-dark sea”? How could the sea look like wine? And this book has the answer.
It’s fairly conservative in its conclusions, not going beyond the available data — and mocking rather people who did go beyond their data — and explaining everything at some length rather than packing in various new ideas. It does include a lot of examples and interesting facts about various languages, like languages which don’t use egocentric directions but always geographical ones. I would’ve been interested in a bit more on gendered language, but it doesn’t seem as if the work has been done there, yet. It also gives some credit for ideas that were ahead of their time, even if they were founded on shaky principles, which was interesting.
Ultimately, Deutscher explains why early assumptions that language affects the way we perceive the world were wrong — but then goes on to explain that that instinctive feeling isn’t wrong in itself.
Why Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne
This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can’t judge on whether it’s convincing — I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.
Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn’t know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory — if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).
Overall, it’s clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it’s useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.
Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too — for example, why our behaviour isn’t fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren’t dismantled in any way by evolution.
What Do You Mean You’re Not Interested In Sex?, Amanda Lee
Full disclosure: I know the author and was a proofreader for this. It’s available free on Smashwords, so if it interests you, I do recommend it. Considering the number of people I’ve come across who identify as asexual, it’s amazing that there isn’t more commentary available on it.
Amanda Lee’s paper is a personal and academic exploration of the phenomenon, and covers a lot of the things people don’t understand about it. It’s not at all difficult to read, and it’s not reserved for academics either — the style is plain and accessible. It defines the terms it’s using early on, so there’s no problems there.
Normally I would feel that it isn’t anyone’s business, but it can be pretty isolating, so I guess this is a version of coming out: I’m ace (i.e. asexual) myself. Human bodies can be aesthetically pleasing but if I think too much about it, blech. Please do not remind me that Chris Evans (Captain America) has internal organs; if I think about that too much, I might lose my tiny crush on him.
If right now you’re feeling the urge to say things like, “Are you like that because you were abused or something?”, “you’re using that word wrong” or “you just haven’t met the right person yet”, please follow the link earlier in the review: you’ll find your answers right there, and there are helpful headings in the essay itself to direct you at exactly what you want to know.
Review on Goodreads.