The Language Hoax

Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

McWhorter, John H.

Book - 2014
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Language Hoax
Baker & Taylor
Challenges the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that the language people speak shapes the way they perceive the world, arguing against the use of language as a lens through which to better understand human nature.

Oxford University Press
Japanese has a term that covers both green and blue. Russian has separate terms for dark and light blue. Does this mean that Russians perceive these colors differently from Japanese people? Does language control and limit the way we think?

This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. Linguist John McWhorter argues that while this idea is mesmerizing, it is plainly wrong. It is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around. The fact that a language has only one word for eat, drink, and smoke doesn't mean its speakers don't process the difference between food and beverage, and those who use the same word for blue and green perceive those two colors just as vividly as others do.

McWhorter shows not only how the idea of language as a lens fails but also why we want so badly to believe it: we're eager to celebrate diversity by acknowledging the intelligence of peoples who may not think like we do. Though well-intentioned, our belief in this idea poses an obstacle to a better understanding of human nature and even trivializes the people we seek to celebrate. The reality -- that all humans think alike -- provides another, better way for us to acknowledge the intelligence of all peoples.

Publisher: Oxford ;, New York :, Oxford University Press,, [2014]
Copyright Date: ©2014
ISBN: 9780199361588
Branch Call Number: 306.44 M
Characteristics: xx, 182 pages ; 19 cm


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Tuesday, August 12.

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Aug 12, 2014
  • ksoles rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

In the late 1930s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf theorized that the language we speak affects the way we both think and view the world. "The Language Hoax" presents John McWhorter's "manifesto" against this position; the author aims not only to itemize the empirical flaws of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but also to unveil its political dangers. McWhorter's slim but finely wrought volume argues that the exotification of speakers of non-Western languages perpetuates inequality.

McWhorter does not dispute that language and culture intersect; language obviously contains words and expressions for aspects of culture. Speakers of English, for example, use a single pronoun when addressing others yet, when speaking a language with politeness distinctions, such as German, one must use the right pronoun in conversation as dictated by cultural norms. This difference can tempt linguists to infer that speakers of different languages necessarily think differently about social organisation and relationships. However, McWhorter remains steadfast in his conclusion “that language’s effect on thought is distinctly subtle and, overall, minor”.

He illustrates his point with the frequently cited 2007 experiment on colour discrimination by cognitive scientist Jonathan Winawer and colleagues. The “Russian blues” study investigated whether the fact that two colours belong to two different linguistic categories (as with light and dark blue in Russian) can affect the speed with which subjects judge the colour difference. Though Russian speakers did have faster reaction times when discriminating two shades of blue, McWhorter points out that the 124-millisecond difference in reaction time hardly proves a difference in “the way Russians experience life”.

The problem, then, in the debate on linguistic relativity lies with the definition of thought. If understood solely as a cognitive process then yes, language can influence thought. But if thought denotes mental activity and its conceptual products, the linguistic relativity hypothesis cannot be validated empirically. Regardless, "The Language Hoax" provides a welcome antidote to Whorfian claims and carries the message that language does not dictate world views.


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