Lost in Translation? Absolutely

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Byline: Craig Brown Book of the Week

Through The Language Glass by Guy Deutscher Heinemann [pounds sterling]20 [pounds sterling]16.99 inc p&p ***

Ten or fifteen years ago, there was an annoying fashion, particularly in metropolitan circles, for saying 'Absolutely' instead of 'Yes'. We all did it without meaning to. 'Would you like a cup of coffee?' 'Absolutely.' 'Did you enjoy that book?' 'Absolutely.' 'Have you finished what you were doing?' 'Absolutely.' Odder still, after people had been saying 'Absolutely' a few months, they began to say it in a sloppier way, so it emerged as 'Slooply'.

Even though hundreds of thousands of people - perhaps even millions - found themselves in the grip of absolutitis, no one, either then or now, could tell you what caused it, or what it meant. Heaven knows why this bug started, or why, just as suddenly, it stopped.

Every now and then, you may hear someone today saying 'Absolutely' instead of yes, but it now sounds very retro, like someone whistling a tune by Chas 'n' Dave. Where did it come from and where did it go?

Trying to trace the flight of language - even the very recent use of a single word - is impossible, but its very impossibility makes it irresistible to many academics. For some time, linguistic scholars have all shared two central beliefs: that all languages are equally complex, and that they don't reflect serious cultural differences between nationalities.

Moreover, most of them agree with the American linguistic guru Noam Chomsky when he declares that we are born with an innate command of grammar and that, furthermore, grammar is so similar in all languages that if a Martian came to Earth he would conclude that all earthlings speak dialects of the same language.

In Through The Language Glass, an iconoclastic young linguist called Guy Deutscher goes against the grain of received academic opinion. He stands up for what one might loosely define as the common-sense view, and against the professionals. 'I will argue that cultural differences are reflected in the language in profound ways,' he declares. 'And that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.'

So the battle lines are drawn. The only trouble is that the battle is being fought in mud, with no hope of a resolution. Deutscher writes as clearly and engagingly as can be, but often he seems to get lost in the mud, and ends up switching sides, attacking his allies and defending his enemies. Other academic disciplines at least hold the promise of progress towards enlightenment, but with the study of language it sometimes seems that the more you find out, the less you will ever know.

But if the journey ends up in the fog, it takes in some very pretty views. Deutscher presents some fascinating case histories, many of them drawn from the offbeat languages of obscure tribesmen. Take, for instance, the tale behind the word 'kangaroo'. In 1770, when Captain Cook set foot in North-East Australia, he came across a strange hopping animal and asked the natives what it was called. 'Kangaroo', they replied. Thus the English language came to incorporate its very first Aboriginal word.

But, after a while, doubts about the authenticity of the word kangaroo began to be raised. When other explorers spotted the animal in different parts of Australia and asked the natives what it was called, no one ever replied 'kangaroo' or anything remotely like it. A hundred years later, the rumour began to spread that the word kangaroo in fact meant 'I don't know'.

It was not until 1971 that the mystery was cleared up. An anthropologist called John Haviland was studying a tiny Aboriginal community of 1,000 people called the Guugu Yimithirr, who lived 30 miles north of Cooktown. Haviland discovered that this tribe called one particular type of large kangaroo by the name 'gangurru'. …