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The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language [Kindle Edition]

John H. McWhorter
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

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In The Language Hoax - a "manifesto" - John.H Mcwhorter wishes to counter contemporary "neo-Whorfian" claims that significant cognitive differences are determined by people's mother tongues ... McWhorter covers some basic importatnt topics. (Michael Silverstein, The Times Literary Supplement)

Engrossing reading. (Kerstin Hoge, Times Higher Education)

In this succinct, accessible and engaging book, John McWhorter looks at the evidence and concludes that this popular idea is wrong. His argument is convincing and, despite its brevity, the book covers immense ground. Anyone fascinated by language would enjoy and learn from it. (Oliver Kamm, The Times)

He [McWhorter] 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. (Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times Ireland)

The Language Hoax is a welcome antidote to unqualified Whorfian claims and pronouncements. (Kerstin Hoge, Times Higher Education)

John McWhorter wishes to drive a stake through the heart of that claim, known as the Safir-Whorf hypothesis, or the language-as-lens theory. (Tom Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

[McWhorter] tackles linguistic determinism― the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis―head on, arguing that world views are human, not strapped to one culture. (Nature)

McWhorter writes with liveliness and enthusiasm, noting: All languages are, in their own ways, as utterly awesome as creatures, snowflakes, Haydn string quartets, or what The Magnificent Ambersons would have been like if Orson Welles had been allowed to do the final edit. This book makes very accessible to the lay reader some of the more esoteric theories of linguistic studies. (Publishers Weekly)

a well-written and stimulating book that asks uncomfortable questions and turns common arguments on their head. The author uses examples from an impressive number of languages across the globe to provide counter-examples to claims that may easily be made (and occasionally have been made) about the influence of language on thought ... McWhorter manages the difficult task of properly positioning himself within the vast territory between the two extremes of linguistic determinism and biolinguistics. (Peter Backhaus, Linguist List)

About the Author

John McWhorter is Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and author of many books, including The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, and What Language Is, What It Isn't, and What It Could Be. He also writes on language, as well as race and cultural issues, as Contributing Editor at The New Republic and Columnist at Time. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Time, and The New Yorker, and he has appeared often on National Public Radio, CSPAN and MSNBC.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars McWhorter is usually great to listen to 5 Feb. 2015
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
McWhorter is usually great to listen to, less so to read. In this book he manages to be as good in print as he usually is in person. This is an excellent deconstruction of the much loved argument from linguistic relativity. McWhorter shows us how appealing and yet how ludicrous this argument is when examined in any detail. He also makes a good case for how patronising these arguments often are.
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15 of 23 people found the following review helpful
This book aims to negate Benjamin Whorf’s hypothesis that language has a formative effect upon worldview. The word "hoax" in the title immediately signals a problem. If nothing else a book about linguistics ought to be accurate in its language. By definition a hoax is a deliberate deception, usually with malicious intent, an accusation which cannot in any seriousness be made against Whorf or his disciples, whether one agrees with them or not.
McWhorter believes that Whorf is wrong and that there is little or no interaction between language and worldview. He writes: "The truth is that language dances ever so lightly on thought." In claiming this truth he offers as supporting evidence a great many examples from his field of linguistics.
However McWhorter’s argument lacks an adequate acknowledgement or exploration of other views on the subject, as expressed by eminent thinkers such as Wittgenstein: "the limits of my language are the limits of my world," or Whitehead: "language... foists on us exact concepts as though they represented the immediate deliverances of experience. The result is that we imagine that we have immediate experience of a world with perfectly defined objects implicated in perfectly defined events..."
I would have welcomed a balanced and well-informed discussion of the subject, regardless of conclusion, but McWhorter has not delivered this. Neither does his writing style, which I can only describe as nerdish glee, do justice to the subject.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bracing and informative book on language and the trendy theory that language shapes thought 8 Oct. 2014
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As signaled by its title, THE LANGUAGE HOAX is in the nature of a polemic -- or, as author John H. McWhorter prefers to call it, a "manifesto". It is his case against simple-minded Whorfianism, or to use a more formal name, the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis". Put generally, that is the theory that a person's language controls and limits the way she thinks, such that speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. It is a trendy and insidiously pervasive notion. But it is not born out empirically, except to a minute and limited extent, and there are many cogent arguments against it, especially when one considers languages other than the one being touted as so uniquely different that it makes its speakers see the world differently.

I suspect that anthropologists studying a specific people and their language tend to fixate on that people and that language and are prone to developing tunnel vision. Someone with the linguistic background of McWhorter has a much broader perspective. For example, some languages have "evidential markers", by which a speaker stating a proposition indicates how he knows it to be true and/or the degree of certainty he has concerning that proposition -- for example, whether he saw the chopping of logs, heard it, heard others talk about it, or whether thinks but is not sure logs were being chopped. One such language is Tuyaca, spoken by a people of the Amazon. Does that feature mean that Tuyacas are more sensitive to epistemological nuances or that they are more skeptical than people whose language does not employ evidential markers (such as English)? Whorfians are predisposed to think so. But broaden the inquiry to include all the languages of the world. The Ancient Greeks were renowned for their inherent skepticism, yet they had no evidential markers. Nor does any European language spoken today except Bulgarian. What, as McWhorter asks, do Bulgarians have in common with Tuyuca tribespeople that Czechs, Macedonians, and Poles do not? Evidential markers are common in the Native American languages of western North America, but not the ones in the east. They are present in one Aboriginal language in Australia but not in another related language spoken by nearby Aborigines living in identical circumstances. Broadening the inquiry to take in all, or at least many other, languages quells the impulse to think that features such as evidential markers exist because speakers "need" them in making sense of or coping with their world. As McWhorter discusses at some length, the explanation for differences in languages is not based on cultural "needs" but rather is a matter of chance.

I cannot begin to do justice in a short Amazon review to McWhorter's "manifesto" and all the arguments he marshals to support it. It is rather remarkable that he fits it all in a compact book of 180 pages of text. For such an academic subject, THE LANGUAGE HOAX is written rather informally. Nonetheless, it still can be difficult to track, primarily because of the dense syntactical constructions that McWhorter is prone to. (What, for example, does this sentence mean?: "However, from where the idea that what shapes thought is the word for something rather than the thing itself?" I had to read it four times before I made sense of it.) But even if I did not fully assimilate some of the book's nuances, I learned many fascinating things about language.

I should add that McWhorter does not quarrel with those he calls "Neo-Whorfians", who he acknowledges have shown, empirically, that language can have a subtle and overall minor effect on thought. What McWhorter wants to dispel is the notion that language shapes "world-views", such that an Eskimo, because he has umpteen different words for snow, cognitively sees the world and experiences life much differently than you or I, or likewise the Herero from Namibia because his language does not differentiate between blue and green, or the Pirahã of the Brazilian rain forest because her language does not contain words for different numbers.

At the same time, McWhorter shows language to be incredibly complex and protean. His enthusiasm for the fecundity of language is contagious. And it is that fecundity that, to him, is what is so amazing about language. "To think of the most interesting thing about language as being how it sheds light on its speakers' thought processes is like cherishing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony not for its nimble melodies, richness of harmony, surging thematic progressions, and stirring orchestration, but for the handful of dimly flickering hints that it just might lend us about what Beethoven was like as a dude." I for one am persuaded.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars After Words 30 Nov. 2014
By L. King - Published on
Linguistic scholar John McWhorter rants on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claims that the world appears different depending on the language one uses to think in. Whorf, the fire insurance investigator, not the Klingon, noticing back in the 1930's that the Hopi language lacked modifiers and nouns for time and tense, concluded that the Hopi language imbued a different world view from that of English speaking Americans. Other extensions of this idea argue that the richness of a language wrt conceptual terms regarding number, colour or snow will reflect how how speakers of that language understand/conceptualize the world differently.

McWhorter's objection is that the real difference is culture, not language, and that all human beings are capable of seeing the world in the same way. Grudgingly he admits that neo-Whorfians have succeeded in illustrating small effects; what he opposes is granting these differences a larger significance. The first example (pp7-9) involves cognition and categorization. Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky noted that Russian has no simple word for pure blue, rather goluboj for a light blue and siniy for a darker navy. Russian speakers were able to match squares corresponding to their colour words 1/8th of a second faster than squares that did not. The same experimenter noted that in Mandarin time before/after mapped onto up/down, where as in English it was conceptualized as a left/right sequence. Mandarin speakers tested on a vertical array of buttons were 170 milliseconds faster than English speakers whereas English speakers are 300 msec faster when using a horizontal arrangement. (pp26-27) (No comment from either that this may not be linguistic rather a reflection of how each group reads text, which seems more plausible.)

While dismissing these difference as inconsequential McWhorter doesn't justify his conclusion, which could make one skeptical of the arguments that follow. Most tasks involve both concentration and compound judgements. Episodic memory is only a couple of seconds long, so a difference between 1.1 and 1.224 seconds per assessment could cumulatively be significant. It would be reasonable to consider that we prefer patterns of thought that would allow us to process information entirely within that duration.

The book certainly is interesting in its anecdotes. That the Tuyuca of the Amazon mark sentences using evidential markers based on whether the topic was seen, heard, deduced or heard third hand or that the Nasioi of New Guinea have over 200 different word genders, South American Saramaccans can say one has "more" of something than another, but there is no word for less.

The bête noire of the book is Alfred Bloom who observed that Chinese is relatively free of tense and gender marker, yet the Chinese appear no less capable of thinking about these matters than any other culture. However monolingual Chinese speakers appear less willing to consider abstract as opposed to concrete counterfactuals compared to Chinese who spoke more than one language, indicating that multiple languages gave people an enhanced perspective. Another argument against is that many different cultures speak English, yet they exhibit differences in interests and values. If language determines culture one would expect greater similarity than is observed.

McWhorter doesn't do as well when he admits that people who don't have terms for X, don't discuss X, but can still conceptualize about it, but this is not so obviously true. It is perhaps a major point of the Whorfian hypothesis that societies create terms and differentiate them with meaning to be used as building blocks for grander ideas. In a real sense this is what higher education does, initiating students with subject related jargon and accompanying perspectives in order to provide them tools for thought. And in the book's concluding chapter he embraces the very Whorfian notion that language can reinforce both sexism and racism, which we need to think about to circumvent. One comes away feeling that the real objection is that Whorfism might lead to politically incorrect conclusions that other cultures are somehow less capable rather than different than our own. But is that the fault of the hypothesis or its misapplication?

It was an enjoyable read, not too long (or too big) but not as convincing as the author would have liked. Highly recommended for a book club or discussion group.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language, thought, and reality? 22 Aug. 2014
By Jaylia3 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Does the structure of the language we speak affect the way we think and how we perceive the world? If you are intrigued by that idea and don’t mind re-examining any cherished Sapir-Whorf beliefs you may have this short but spirited and well argued book will be of interest. When we think of the fascinatingly structured Navajo language there is some appeal to the idea that its speakers have a special, maybe advanced way of understanding reality, but with his usual well informed wit McWhorter makes the case that if you accept that and take the idea that language patterns and limits our perceptions to all its logical conclusions you’ll end up with some very unpalatable and fortunately wrong judgements about various other peoples of the world--from the Chinese who speak a language which marks hypotheticals less explicitly than English (though surely Chinese speakers around the globe understand the difference between “She would have called him” and “She will have called him” anyway) to the people in New Guinea who speak languages with only one word for eat, drink, and smoke, (but who couldn’t possibly be thus doomed by this lack to be unable to distinguish between those three activities.)

Most people tend to take their own language’s idiosyncrasies (and idioms) in stride, accepting them as what’s normal, but language variations are the actual norm. McWhorter makes a convincing case that most of the often marvelous differences between languages are random, like spontaneous DNA mutations, and almost meaningless when we are looking at cognitive skills. Yes, Amazonian people with languages that have no way to indicate amounts higher than 2 or 3 will likely not be good at math, but McWhorter believes that is driven by circumstance and culture since hunter-gathers around the world and throughout time have not had much use for a number like 8,527.

McWhorter is always entertaining, and I especially love all the fascinating language facts he deploys, like that the Tuyuca people, who also live in the Amazon, have a language so rich and complex there are multiple suffixes for every verb to indicate where the speaker learned whatever he or she is saying--there’s one suffix affixed to the verb to let listeners know that speakers heard someone else say what they are now saying, another suffix for when the speakers instead saw what they are telling you, yet another for when the speakers think what they are saying is true but aren’t sure, etc. The Language Hoax is replete with wonderful, mind-expanding language anecdotes.

While it’s definitely both fun and worth reading, this isn’t my favorite of McWhorter’s books. Because it focuses somewhat narrowly on the debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its neo-Whorfian revival, The Language Hoax didn’t glue me to its pages with the same level of intensity that some of McWhorter’s other titles have, including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, which gives different insights into the history English than I have read elsewhere, The Power of Babel, which covers the worldwide history of language and its development, and What Language Is, which presents an almost fecund biological picture of how languages multiply, evolve, and disperse.
32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars not up to the quality I would expect 15 Nov. 2014
By DrSergeant - Published on
McWhorter creates a straw man argument of linguistic relativism in order to attack... the strawman arguments created by linguistic relativists... Unfortunately, because of this his arguments are facile and superficial, and he doesn't actually address the science behind the theories, he simply attacks the public conception of the theories. Honestly, I would have given three or four stars were it not for the fact that this book is by an ACADEMIC PRESS (so, honestly, I am more disappointed with Oxford University Press for publishing this than I am with McWhorter for writing it). Lack of evidence and footnotes means that it would be a great New Yorker article, or piece of journalistic writing, but as a book by a Ph.D. published by such a prestigious press, I definitely expected more.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Sapir Whorf, exactly. 8 May 2014
By John E. Clifford - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Read Through the Language Glass first to get a sense of what McWhorter is putting down. Otherwise you may think this is about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in all its glory. In the end, McWhorter gives a fairly good account of the political factors which may have created the hypothesis and also led to the current diminished form. But all that says nothing about the truth of the full form -- which is, by the way, not discussed or more than alluded to in either book.
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