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The Language Hoax

Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

John McWhorter

(London Times)

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, describes this book as a 'manifesto'. He seeks to prove that one of the prevailing theories in linguistics - that speakers of different languages experience the world differently - is utterly incoherent. The truth is, he writes, that language dances only ever so lightly on thought... our differences are variations on being the same.

The notion that language determines thought is not new. In the 19th century the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke wrote that differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world. More recently, the theory has become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, named after the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. In the 1930s Whorf noted that the Native American Hopi language has no way to mark the passage of time. He concluded from this that the Hopi people have no concept of past, present and future. For Whorf, this corresponded to the cyclical sense of time in Hopi cosmology, and showed that their very language shaped the way they view the world.

Whorf's ideas still have many adherents ('neo-Whorfians'). McWhorter doesn't entirely dismiss their work, and writes positively about some neo-Whorfian experiments. One has shown that because Russians have different words for light and dark blue, they can differentiate those shades faster than speakers of languages that have only one word for blue. But McWhorter contends that because the results of such experiments show only infinitesimal impacts (the Russian-speakers' reaction times were on average 124 milliseconds faster than those of others), no meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

What such experiments certainly don't prove, he argues, is that language creates different world views. The fact that Russians react slightly faster to variations in shades of blue doesn't mean that they have greater sensitivity to colour in any existential sense. Similarly, even though the French language assigns genders to nouns, French speakers do not view the world as being full of objects showing male or female characteristics. Unlike the neo-Whorfians, McWhorter does not present the results of any scientific experiments to support his case. He does, however, have a broad knowledge of semantics and the history of how different languages have evolved. He uses this to good effect in teasing out the subtleties of etymology to argue that differences in grammar among languages are purely down to chance and do not prove variations in thought patterns. All humans, he writes, are mentally alike.

His objections to neo-Whorfian ideas, however, are not only aimed at his fellow academics. Early on he writes, 'There are so many books; one must ballyhoo a bit.' By which he means that in order to stand out from the crowd, a writer is forced to sensationalise. He blames this tendency for the way the often sober findings of the neo-Whorfians are distorted by the media. So-called 'popular Whorfianism', as opposed to academic Whorfianism, is, he says, 'an immature position'.

McWhorter himself, though, is not immune to sensationalising. The use of 'hoax' in the book's title suggests he believes neo-Whorfians are deliberately trying to hoodwink everybody, yet this clearly isn’t his stance. And although he describes the book as a 'manifesto', it is a good deal more nuanced and fair-minded than that. What he has actually written is a witty riposte to one of the more entrenched theories in contemporary linguistics. He is an engaging, persuasive writer, and although his book is unlikely to be the final word on the subject, it is a provocative and valuable addition to the debate.

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