How class plays a role through the looking glass
I may be a bit late to the game as I’m only now reading Guy Deutscher’s book Through The Language Glass, published in 2010 when I was mid-degree in Modern Languages and there was a fair deal of hype around his hypotheses. His musings about the way we view the hues of black, red and white in far greater intricacy than the ungi, unga, susungu of the Bellonese language, leads into a supposition that we as English-speakers in economically developed contexts fail to see the intricacies of these peoples and tongues beyond a limited complexity we came to in our own minds, if we are not academic linguists.
“Ask Joe the Plumber, Piers the Ploughman, or Tom the Piper’s Son what sort of languages the half-naked tribes in the Amazonian rainforest speak, and they will undoubtedly tell you that ‘primitive people speak primitive languages.’ Ask professional linguist the same question, and they’ll say something quite different.”
Deutscher, Guy (2011) Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages, Arrow, London, pp. 99.
Now I may have the title “linguist” in my profile, but I am a far cry from a “professional” of sorts, certainly not considered so in the realm of academia. Much of my understanding of language — beyond the study of foreign languages—comes from vocational qualifications and self-taught study of phonology and grammar. I detest the assumption that Deutscher makes about working-class or non-academic people make that lesser economically developed peoples are considered more primitive in nature. You might call this wishful thinking, but I like to believe that the working man (or woman) inherits more in rhetoric from the dominant classes than what comes from their own ignorance. Myself a first-generation undergraduate from a working-class family in a relatively deprived area of the north, I believe that many working-class people of lower economic status see less value and importance in conventional economic development when it often sees them on the poverty line.
“You might call this wishful thinking, but I like to believe that the working man (or woman) inherits more in rhetoric from the dominant classes than what comes from their own ignorance.”
And while I recognise that Deutscher does go on to defend these lesser known peoples and languages from such ridicule, he fails to understand that this is not merely an attitude of ‘uneducated workers,’ as he could have argued about those interviewed in 1960s Australia, but society as a whole, whose racist attitudes trickle down from — the only thing that does trickle down. Those Australians, and their views on Aboriginal peoples will stem from an entire culture of dehumanisation of Indigenous people that all White colonisers were guilty of, most importantly those at the top, who incredibly often left “uneducated” working classes behind.
Deutscher’s reluctance to drop the ‘Joe, Piers or Tom’ analogy for the rest of the chapter — Tom, Dick or Harry would’ve been better, let’s be honest — irks me to no end. Similarly, it’s incredibly annoying that he judges academics who make sweeping statements that aren’t backed up by evidence when he falls into the same trap himself merely pages later. To keep referring to societies as ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ (p113) when he himself rebukes these ideas makes me skeptical of anything else he comes up with. I don’t see myself enjoying Part II of the book.