Monday, December 17, 2018

Review: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter is always interesting, entertaining, and insightful. He reads the audible book, and I like that. He has the voice for it and, since he wrote it, knows how it should sound. The one downside for me on this, and it's minor, is that since I listen to his podcast, Lexicon Valley, this did feel like a really long podcast episode.

On to the substance. The focus of the book is a critique of a kind of strict or strong Whorfianism (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). On the strongest version of this hypothesis, the idea is that language conditions or determines how and what we think -- even what we perceive. Here are some crude examples: Russian has several words for different shades of blue, therefore Russian speakers literally see more shades of blue. Or the Pirahã language which apparently has no numbers means the Pirahã don’t know how to count. McWhorter's argument in this book is to point out how this view is empirically and theoretically wrong.

McWhorter is careful to make sure his reader doesn't misinterpret his critique as a rejection of any influence of language on how and we think. Of course there are important influences. The critique is against the strong version -- which is the one that the media and others tend to glom on to. He also discusses why the strong version is the version that is popularized, while empirically minded linguistics don't take it seriously. Language is the tool we use for thinking and communicating, and so it's important to think about it as we inquire into how we conceptualize about the world. But it doesn't determine what and how we think.

My priors are with McWhorter, so his critique and analysis make perfect sense to me. But more than that, he is careful to discuss the opposing theories and theorists with charity and integrity. He discusses the linguist evidence and what the evidence supports. He builds his case and lays out it.

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