John H. McWhorterThe Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

Oxford University Press, 2014

by Chris Cummins on July 18, 2014

John H. McWhorter

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The idea that the language we speak influences the way we think – sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has had an interesting history. It’s particularly associated with the idea that languages dismissed as primitive by 19th century thinkers, such as those of indigenous peoples in America and Australia, are not only as rich and complex as European languages (a now uncontroversial point) but also cause their speakers to conceive of reality in fundamentally different and more sophisticated ways.

One problem with this idea, as John McWhorter points out in his new book The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford UP, 2014), is that, for there to be ‘winners’, there must also be ‘losers’ – people who are held back by their language. And that’s a much less palatable idea, whether we think that it’s Hopi or English or Chinese speakers that are the ‘losers’. However, McWhorter’s main objection to the Whorfian idea is not that it’s unpalatable, but rather that (as the title of his book suggests) the evidence for it is sketchy. Or, more precisely, although language has been shown to influence cognition in certain ways, none of these are very substantial, and it would be a gross exaggeration to consider that speakers of different languages automatically have different worldviews.

In this interview, we talk about the political dimensions of Whorfianism, and discuss some of the evidence for effects of this kind (and how far they go). We touch upon the way in which claims about it are evaluated by linguists, and how the history of linguistics influences how the idea has developed. And we consider the implications for our own view of the world, if the consequences of language were as profound as has been argued.

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