Friday, January 29, 2021

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, by John McWhorter (author, narrator)

Audible Studios, January 2015

In this book, John McWhorter takes on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, with vigor and enthusiasm, and his usual excellent research.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says, basically, that language shapes the way we see and understand the world. One example, a fairly basic one, is that Japanese has one word that identifies both blue and green, while Russian has one word for dark blue and another word for light blue. Does this mean the Japanese can't see different shades of blue and green as clearly as Russians can?

No. The Japanese can see these colors just as well; they just describe them differently.

A more complex example is verb tenses. English has a future tense, a verb tense we use to refer to the future. "I will go out tomorrow." Many other languages, do too, but also many other languages don't have a future tense. Does this mean the speakers of those languages can't plan for the future? 

No. Once again, they can anticipate the future, refer to it, plan for it. They just use other means of doing so, often context-dependent.

McWhorter explains this much better than I can, and takes on the idea not just as bad linguistics, but as bad linguistics that, while it originated in a desire to recognize the worth of non-Western or "primitive" cultures, has a pernicious tendency to promote condescension towards other cultures, and a certain ethnocentrism, accepting our own language and culture as obviously the standard.

While not having the lightness and well-used, intentional silliness that enlivens some of his other works, he makes excellent, informative, and entertaining use of the differences among languages in the course of explaining what he sees as wrong in much Sapir-Whorf analysis. And it should be noted, in this context, that English, far from being the obviously normal language we who speak it as our native tongue tend to assume, is in many ways downright weird, an outlier in many ways.

The same, of course, is true of other languages. Each language has evolved on its own path, and the changes are often happenstance, not response to anything to do with the environment of their speakers. Culture and language aren't all that closely related.

It's a fascinating listen, and well worth your time.

I bought this audiobook.

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