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The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language Hardcover – 10 Jul 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (10 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199361584
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199361588
  • Product Dimensions: 18 x 2.3 x 13.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 289,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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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)

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 (Publishers Weekly)

About the Author

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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 12 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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, it 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 at least six 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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
not up to the quality I would expect 15 Nov 2014
By DrSergeant - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
It's about time. 6 Jun 2014
By David Baca - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've been a fan of John H. McWhorter ever since he penned"Babel." He has a knack of making the often mind -boggling science of linguistics and the complexity of language not only accessible and comprehensible but also entertaining and delightfully educational.

For years I've been waiting for someone with the savvy and wit of Socrates to take to task the language shapes thought crowd. McWhorter refutes the stale tale that the languages humans speak are relative to the culture in which they are expressed. In the Language Hoax McWhorter refutes Whorfian "truths" with knock-down arguments page after page from start to finish.

The onus is on the Whorfians to prove that linguistic relativism is a tenable position to take.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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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