Dog Eared

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A Powerful Debunking of Whorfian Exaggeration

Whorfianism — the idea that language shapes thought, and each language creates a distinct worldview — is an appealing idea. What language lover doesn't get excited when hearing about a foreign country's unique grammar or vocabulary, and how such features inevitably determine how its speakers see the world? Whorfianism is a beautiful way to acknowledge the uniqueness of cultures.

But there's one problem: Whorfianism, at least dogmatic Whorfianism, is a huge load of bunk, at least according to John McWhorter's new book The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. This is a persuasive book that expertly dismantles "...the very idea that language is primarily a cultural tool rather than primarily a shambolically magnificent accretion of random habits." While pooh-poohing Whorfianism, McWhorter also makes a case for the intrinsic beauty and magnificence of languages.

McWhorter calls this book a manifesto, and it definitely is — but it's not unreasonable, unbalanced, or rant-like in any way. He dismantles the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis without dismissing it: in fact, McWhorter takes great pains to acknowledge and discuss Whorfian research that does show a connection (however small) between language and thought, and he's equally clear that those researchers are not the source of the myth he opposes: rather, it's journalists who are to blame.

Unfortunately for language enthusiasts, this is a common complaint with a lot of truth. In a recent blog post about a different case of misinformation-spreading, Geoffrey Pullum blames "...the whole culture of modern science reporting, where university media-relations offices badger scientists into giving them popularized and slightly inaccurate media releases about their work, and newspaper editors are trying to meet deadlines with sexed-up stories and snappy eye-catching headlines. Working together, they can turn science into mush." Like Pullum, Mark Liberman, and others on Language Log, McWhorter is an expert debunker of such mush.

Among McWhorter's most devastating points is that we only really apply Whorfianism to other cultures. Such work, though sometimes noble in motivation, is often creepy and condescending in practice. By focusing on other cultures, we may intend to value their culture, but we often end up minimizing and misrepresenting it. Rarely is the Whorfian lens applied to English, but that's just what McWhorter does to great effect in the chapter "What's the Worldview from English?" Ultimately, he makes a strong case that: "To scorn diversity is antithetical to egalitarianism. However, to fetishize it, while perhaps seeming progressive, can be equally elitist."

As befits a manifesto, this is a great read, full of engaging sentences, apt comparisons, and witty writing that add pleasure to a well-supported argument. McWhorter has a way with words, stating his ideas cleverly and powerfully: "If you want to learn about how humans differ, study cultures. However, if you want insight as to what makes all humans worldwide the same, beyond genetics, there are few better places to start than how language works." McWhorter often uses humor to make his points, like when he mentions that Swedish doesn't have a word for wipe: "Let's not even imagine telling Swedes they don't wipe — it's just that they use words like dry and erase, which serve just as well." Sentences like this are a writing twofer: they enhance the reading experience and McWhorter's argument.

Before reading this book, I hadn't given this topic a lot of thought one way or the other. I knew the Eskimo snow words story was a myth, but that's about it. After reading McWhorter, I feel substantially more informed about Whorfianism and infinitely more interested. I'm also intrigued by the Neo-Whorfians, whose research, as McWhorter points out, does show some influence of language on thought, however tiny. I'm going to seek out that research, because it sounds fascinating, even if it doesn't support any broad, too-good-to-be-true claims.

For McWhorter, it's not the alleged worldview-shaping power that makes language amazing: it's the fact that one species evolved so many languages. Though this book may sound like it's merely popping a balloon, it's actually affirming something even more lovely: "The take-home message is that language varies awesomely despite a single basic human cognition." We're all the same under the skin and under the lexicon. That's good news.

More good news: This book is a great dispeller of hooey and hokum. If you're interested in language and culture, or just great argumentation, you'll enjoy it.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.