I imagine that some of the things I found delightful about John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language are just the things that will annoy other readers: it’s personal (haters say: not enough research), funny (haters say: condescending), a bit of a polemic (haters say: don’t challenge our romantic myths) and shows no mercy on pop-Whorfianism (haters: repeat random).
What is pop-Whorfianism? It’s the naive, broadly-brushed, disproven, zombie-like notion that language shapes thought that manifests itself popularly in pernicious myths like “Eskimo languages have X number of words for snow,” accompanied by the conclusion that said Eskimos thus perceive the world in a different— presumably better, richer, fuller way—than English speakers. This idea is easily disproven with a dictionary; English has many words and phrases for “snow” including slush, sleet, snowstorm, crust, etc. More than that, one has only to inquire into the possible direction of influence, i.e. Is it that language has shaped the Eskimo perception of snow or that the significant presence of snow has shaped the language?
McWhorter skillfully recounts the linguistic research and then delightfully skewers the pop-Whorfian myths that have sprung from it using examples from the Russian language’s lack of a generic term for “Blue” to the Chinese terms for next and last month as “the month below” and “the month above” to analyzing the overheard sentence, “Dey try to cook it too fast, I’m-a be eatin’ some pink meat!” With each of his examples, McWhorter acknowledges where research has shown the weakest effects—on the order of 100-200 milliseconds difference in reaction times between native Russian and Chinese speakers responding to colors or direction—then asks reasonably if such minute differences make any difference at all, much less bear the weight of contentions that such differences inform and shapes a “world view” in any significant way.
Yet, as McWhorter points out repeatedly, despite all the evidence that points to only the tiniest effects of language on the way we think—and the absolute lack of evidence for its claims—pop-Whorfianism persists. And questioning it leads to passionate, indignant responses. Why? As McWhorter puts it:
And of course even to those in the bleachers on such things, it may seem obvious that language and culture are related. However, one might ask: Why indignation, specifically, at the possibility that someone denies it?
Imagine someone denying that hydrogen and oxygen are the components of water—it’s tough to envision the response being along the pearl-clutching lines of “How dare he!” Clearly there is something extra that conditions this subjective kind of response about language and culture, something as emotional as intellectual. Namely, the interest is less in showing that language is related to what a people are like, than in showing that language is related to why a people should be liked.
That is, we are to value not just how languages demonstrate a people’s culture, but how their cultures are legitimate and sophisticated. Naturally, then, to people of the persuasion in question, the very prospect of dissociating language from what is good about people strikes them not only as mistaken, but as dismissive, irritating, offensive.
At heart, McWhorter argues (and I agree), the attachment to pop-Whorfianism undermines itself in three different ways: 1) it promotes a leveling effect, a kind of omnipresent search for nobility in language that forces it to ignore racist, sexist and other individualized characteristics of various languages, 2) it’s condescending, implicitly promoting a Western-centric point of view (as McWhorter puts it, “the English speaker just talks; the Mohawk speaks philosophy lessons.”) And 3) it’s grossly inaccurate…narrow, academic neo-Whorfianism is undeniably a thing, pop-Whorfianism isn’t, and an attachment to the latter blocks people from accepting what McWhorter calls “the wonders of sameness,” and accepting that diversity isn’t “the only way humans can be interesting.”
As loud a member of the choir as I am, I was most moved by two aspects of the book. First, the simple question of why pop-Whorfianists are always sharing theories about non-Western languages that they think elevate that language and its people but almost never follow the logical path when it leads to the opposite kind of thinking. In McWhorter’s words, “Where is the warmly received Whorfian literature about how certain languages might make their speakers less aware of something central to existence?”
Second, the entire section where he analyzes the line overheard on the subway, “Dey try to cook it too fast, I’m-a be eatin’ some pink meat!” Why? Because it explicitly, deliberately and viscerally answers an important question that is more than just theoretical, one that appears to inform most of the pop-Whorfian positions taken by people in my experience:
The question, then, is: how does English shapes its speakers’ thought, in ways that would intrigue audiences if most Whorfian work were done from the perspective of Third World languages, or even Japanese or Chinese? Of course there is no need to suppose that English outright bars us from thinking anything, any more than any language exerts such an effect on its speakers. We established early in the book that modern Whorfianism is about statistical tendencies, not straw-man absolutes. But still: How does English influence the thinking patterns of those who speak it?
Many will already notice how peculiar the question feels. The idea that our language creates a uniquely Anglophone “worldview” can seem less intuitive than that Japanese creates a Japanese worldview. It isn’t hard to imagine a language called Guugu Yimithirr creating its own worldview, since its very name suggests a world of life vastly unlike our own. But when it comes to future tense markers, ways of saying before and after, or nonexistent gender markers on nouns, what worldview are they creating for the man reaching for a box of cereal at a Walmart outside of St. Louis?
I assume pop-Wharfians will find at least 100 adjectives to describe their objections to McWhorter’s sometimes scathing critique, but to hyper-focus on that critique and miss the generative, positive message of the book would really be missing its most important point.