Tribe without papers or pencils mysteriously weak at portraiture!
Tribe’s not playing music traced to absence of musical instruments!
Carless culture lacks driving skills!
The above are mock examples of invented Neo-Whorfian ‘headlines’ taken from John McWhorter’s “The Language Hoax – Why the world looks the same in any language” (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014). This is not some dry research tome, rather it is a ‘popular’ title designed to engage the reasonably intelligent layman. This short (168 pages) work is a self-declared manifesto aiming to pummel, cripple, and bury (my words) widespread mainstream-media-fanned popular notions of the Neo-Whorfian sort (in short, the claim that languages shape world views) into submission. The mock headlines above are logical extensions of the sort of topsy-turvy logic underlying popular claims, such as one described in detail in the book, specifically that the Praha tribe of the Amazon lack mathematical skills because — wait for it — their language does not have names for numbers.
This is not a book review, although I can state without hesitation that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it (partly because it helped to buttress my own instincts, experiences, and understanding of language). No, I’m writing this to state that I stand with McWhorter on nearly all the salient points he makes (often repeatedly) in the book. Think of it as an extended, more irreverent, version of the argument Steven Pinker was making against the now widely-debunked Whorfian claims regarding the Hopi language — how its alleged lack of explicit time markers creates a unique corresponding world view — in ‘The Stuff of Thought’.
For the most part, the Whorfian hypothesis is not taken too seriously among linguistic academics. If it has any currency, it can be measured in nickels and dimes and operates within a dark few crannies in the halls of cognitive linguistics. But it has gained considerable traction among the general public, and, in many cases, among language teachers, where one regularly hears article-of-faith claims of the ‘language and culture and inseparable’ sort, with the implicit notion being that learning a new language means adopting corresponding new world views, processing entirely new modes of thought. In short, it is the notion that ‘language is a lens through which we view the world’ gets processed through the dicer here. McWhorter, who teachers at Columbia University, seeks to dissipate the notion not only because it is simply wrong, but because it can actually have negative consequences. More on the latter later.
‘If it fits the preferred narrative, ‘evidence’ is pretty easy to mould’
McWhorter does admit that some very clever, very controlled, experiments do, in some manner, support the Neo-Whorfian claim that one’s language can heighten attention paid to certain ways of categorizing items or responses to colour stimuli. What McWhorter argues though is that these verifiable experimental claims, such as Russians being one-tenth (emphasis mine) of a second faster to accurately matching hues of blue – as their language has three words which cover the English spectrum of blue – in no way can be said to signify or indicate a distinct ‘world view’ or ‘ways of looking at reality.’
The Japanese, in another experiment, displayed an inclination to classify items based on their material rather than by shape, which Americans preferred. This indicates perhaps a tendency to classify certain items in a way that other peoples may not. But to claim that this somehow demonstrates a worldview that colours how Japanese people think, feel, and interact is an illogical leap. The results are simply too insignificant to warrant such claims.
I’d like to add my own critique to McWhorter’s here. I’ve heard the claims of Spaniards paying more attention to motion (Spanish verbs apparently contain inflections of motion) or that Chinese speakers view time vertically (prepositions used for ‘before’ and ‘after’ are apparently closer to ‘up’ and ‘down’ in meaning) but it seems to me that if you contrast any two groups in such an experiment, one group will always emerge as being faster to process X or classify some item utilizing method Y. You can then read into that result any preconceived notion you may have about the allegedly integral traits of that culture. If it fits the preferred narrative, any ‘evidence’ is pretty easy to mould.
As McWhorter states, if the hypothesis were significantly true, wouldn’t we see a constant causal relationship between cultures with linguistic feature X and mode of thought or behaviour Y? One of the most compelling bits of evidence in the book is McWhorter’s discussion of two indigenous Mexican ethnicities who inhabit adjacent areas, with very similar environments, and yet while one language employs numerous evidential markers while the other language has none. Similar environments, similar cultures — but structurally distinct languages. Meanwhile, another language spoken in an entirely different location and environment (Bulgarian) also uses a high degree of evidential markers. What essential ‘thought processes’, ‘world views’, or ‘ways of thinking’ then, are such evidential markers — ahem — evidence of?
I would like to add a further consideration, not addressed by McWhorter, specifically that there is often a basic misunderstanding when we engage in such discussions about what we mean by ‘language’ and ‘thought’. If we treat these as abstract, philosophical items it is obvious that language and thought are inextricably entwined. In the Vygotskian sense, language, as a human faculty, can serve to crystallize thought – the process of ‘languaging’ can actually help to shape or re-formulate cognitive content. But there is a vast difference between saying that and claiming that languages (plural – such as Finnish, Uighur, and Navajo) produces or determines specific thoughts, or modes of thought, (again plural). The former in no way implies the latter. The category error police would have to be summoned.
‘Every language can express every concept’
I also wish that McWhorter had attacked Neo-Whorfianism from a lexical angle. Too often, the notion that language X has a single word for item Y but has no direct translation (as a single lexical unit) in a different language is viewed as an indicator of the language producing or influencing ‘world views’. The Chinese, it is said, have no word for ‘privacy’, Arabic no word for ‘compromise’ (see Geoffrey Nunberg’s dismantling of these prejudices in ‘Going Nucular’). Therefore, the argument goes, speakers of those languages have difficulty grasping and dealing with those ‘alien’ concepts.
In reality though, every language can express every concept. It may not be contained within a single lexical item or a distinct verbal inflection but it can be expressed. It may take a sentence, it may require some additional intonation or other prosodic feature to get the idea across, but it can be communicated. Take the Japanese word ‘natsukashii’ or the verb-ending ‘te-shimau.’ The former indicates a nostalgic longing or memory stirred that is cognitively shared by all humans, regardless of mother tongue. The latter adds a mood of regret or discouragement to the activity contained in the verb, which in English, is usually expressed via an adverbial adjunct (think ‘unfortunately’) or a specific intonation. There is no magical Japanese sensibility created by having explicit markers to express these concepts and notions.
Earlier I hinted at how a Neo-Whorfian approach to languages can actually be harmful. How does that work? McWhorter deals with this in some detail: Whorfianism is typically used to show that smaller, indigenous languages and their speakers are not primitive or lacking in sophistication or complexity but rather involve rich, alternative ways of viewing reality, perhaps something that speakers of major languages could learn or benefit from. The problem though is that if we describe language A as being rich in colour, or abstract thought, or arranging time, or sensitivity to rank of interlocutor, thereby manifesting itself in the world views of its speakers, then likewise we would have to argue that speakers of those tongues lacking such features must be cognitively deficient, their speakers lacking in awareness, nuance, intellectual inabilities.
Do the Japanese, with their lack of explicit plurals have cognitive difficulties separating the concept of ‘one’ from ‘many’? Does the absence of a perfect tense or an explicit future marker (will) mean that Japanese have greater difficulties grasping the sequence of recent events and their continuation beyond the present? Neo-Whorfianism is a breeding ground for ridiculous prejudices, spurred on by specious linguistics justifications. Rather than raising the profile of minor languages and ethnicities Neo-Whorfianism open an equally large door allowing the denigration of the same peoples.
McWhorter could have added another demerit arising from the Whorfian perspective. Conflating languages with modes of thought spurs nationalists on in their notions that foreigners can never quite grasp ‘our’ language, that they will always fall short cognitively. The Thai can never fully grasp Shakespeare no matter how proficient (s)he becomes at English. The Brit can never really get Chinese interactions no matter how much (s)he tries to master the language. To quote from White Men Can’t Jump, “Sure, you hear Jimi (Hendrix) play but you don’t really hear Jimi.” For the second language learner this simply adds another psychological barrier to acquisition, a hurdle that some may feel insurmountable. Why contribute to the hindrances?
I, for one, is glad that a charismatic scholar like McWhorter is taking the notion to task by pillorying it in front of the general public. Read this book.