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Some theories just feel right and true. They appeal to our common sense so strongly that we believe in them as soon as we hear them. And if the theory is about language, the language we speak and write, we feel pretty certain that we’re familiar enough with the way it works to assess whether some theory about it is true. Now, here’s a theory about language:
• Language channels the way we think and view the world.
That theory became popular among certain linguists in the 1930s and still circulate among many, perhaps most, educated people today.
One thing we know for certain, languages vary widely. One language may have only a single word for eating and drinking, still another makes uniquely fine discriminations between different shades of a color, yet another has no articles such as the or a.
Native American Hopi have no tense markers to indicate time and no words like later. And that led Benjamin Lee Whorf to propose that since the Hopi language has no way indicate past, present or future, they view time differently from English speakers and, further, the cyclical Hopi cosmology reflects this difference.
Whorf was not a professional linguist, but his ideas looked right to his mentor, the linguist Edward Sapir, and soon the theory — called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — spread among linguists, academics and the general public. However, no examination of people speaking one language or another has found evidence to support the theory. It’s generally conceded now that such linguistic differences as Whorf had in mind don’t actually channel thought or create a particular view of the world.
And now we have John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter is a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, an excellent book that is both scholarly and readable. He’s the author of many other books on language, as well as works on race and cultural issues, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among other publications.
The Language Hoax is a short book. The pages are small, only about 5 by 7 inches, and there are about 168 pages, excluding the introduction, notes and index. Even so — as an admirer of John McWhorter’s work I hate to say this — it’s too long.
McWhorter demonstrates again and again the inability of the neo-Whorfians to come up with credible evidence to support their theory. His examples of wild differences over a spectrum of languages are interesting and often amusing. But after a while even the most indulgent reader will wonder why McWhorter bothered to write this book if, as he says repeatedly and credibly, there’s no support for the theory he’s attacking.
He has been careful to acknowledge and praise academic work that does show how the workings of language can have a tiny, marginal effect on thought, and he’s shown the difference between those studies and the general notion held by some people that such differences in language guide thought and shape culture. McWhorter writes in a readable and engaging style — he’s a good writer — but his passion for bashing this moribund theory is hard to understand. And there is certainly no hoax involved in whatever misunderstanding the lay public may have about languages.
Languages change and develop in the most amazing ways, and the variety of ways that languages differ is wonderful. McWhorter believes linguistic changes come about spontaneously. They just bubble up, he says. How those bubble are made and where they come from — well, that would make a very interesting book.