The Language Hoax

The Language Hoax

Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

Book - 2014
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"A provocative argument against the idea that we view the world through the lens of the language we speak. 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 description.
Publisher: Oxford ;, New York :, Oxford University Press,, 2014
Description: xx, 182 pages ; 19 cm
Copyright Date: ©2014
ISBN: 9780199361588
0199361584
Branch Call Number: 306.44 McW

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LPL_HazlettH Mar 18, 2019

I thought this was a compelling rebuttal of “popular” neo-Whorfianism -- the idea that language shapes thought and therefore culture, as it has trickled down into mainstream thinking. McWhorter stresses repeatedly that while languages do differ in fascinating ways and reflect important environmental factors, the notion that varying grammatical features demonstrate significantly different experiences of reality is unfounded. Packaged in charming and accessible language - a solid read!

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1aa
Jan 12, 2017

I somewhat disliked this long essay; as an extended informal argument debunking Whorfianism its rather overwritten, and the consequences of the argument little explored.

s
StarGladiator
Aug 17, 2015

A most fascinating book, highly recommended to the curious among us. I have long subscribed to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but now see I may have been too accepting of what the experts suggested. Prof. McWhorter does some solid work in countering its underlying premses, and now I am more leaning towards the more knowledge one has affects their world view far more than basic language spoken. A strong argument favoring McWhorter's thesis is the ease with which different peoples can be indoctrinated.

ksoles Aug 12, 2014

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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