15 August 2018

Book review -- the language hoax

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter (2014)

One of the annoyances that comes with having some knowledge of a certain field is the exasperation one feels when reading articles in the mainstream media about that field whose authors all too obviously have only a superficial acquaintance with it.  For example, one regularly sees reports of "Earth-like" exoplanets (which are nothing of the sort), accompanied with wild speculation about possible life there, something not even remotely suggested by any actual data about whatever planet has somehow come to the writer's attention.  Almost every discovery of a new hominid fossil is announced as radically changing our ideas about human evolution, though in reality it usually fits the established picture quite well.

In the field of language, the hardy perennial of this kind of pseudo-journalism is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (sometimes just called the Whorfian hypothesis) -- the idea that different languages shape the thinking and world-views of their speakers in different ways, so that native speakers of (for example) Hopi perceive reality in some fundamentally different way than native speakers of English do.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis dates back to the 1930s and has been pretty solidly debunked within academia for decades, but every so often someone needing an idea for an article stumbles across it and writes it up as something brand-new and intriguing.  The same few clichéd examples keep popping up in such essays, such as the fact that Russian has different words for different shades of blue, Australian Aborigine languages in which speakers orient themselves by compass directions rather than terms like "behind" and "next to", etc.  This article is a good recent example.

Superficially the idea makes sense.  Anyone who ventures beyond the familiar clutch of Western languages like French, German, and Spanish will be startled at just how different the languages of the wider world -- African, Asian, Papuan, Australian aboriginal, etc. -- can be from what English-speakers regard as "normal".  Japanese often leaves the grammatical subject unspecified, so that "I go", "you go", "they go", etc. are not differentiated, but it has a system of verb endings and special verbs marking how polite the sentence is.  Persian does not mark gender in the third person (there's just one pronoun for both "he" and "she"), while Arabic does mark it in the second (there are different masculine and feminine words for "you").  In Navajo, every verb is irregular, most having forms as apparently unrelated as "go" and "went" are.  Many Amazonian Indian languages have "evidentiary grammar", obligatory grammatical markers that specify how you know whatever it is you're asserting.  And so on.  Surely all these strange features must influence how the speakers of these languages think?

In fact, this hypothesis has been tested against the data for decades, and the answer is an almost complete "no".  And John McWhorter is just the man to explain why.

First off, as he discusses in detail, experiments have found a few correlations between unusual features of certain languages and their speakers' awareness of the things those features refer to -- but those correlations are far too weak to constitute evidence of a "world-view".  Also, there are some relationships between features of languages and their speakers' culture or physical environment, but causation clearly runs the other way.  Eskimos don't pay attention to different kinds of snow because their languages have several different words for types of snow; they have those different words because their environment requires them to be aware of such distinctions.  Japanese evolved special grammar to express degrees of politeness because politeness is so important in Japanese culture, not vice-versa.

One thing many non-linguists don't realize is that extreme complexity is the norm in languages -- many, even most, of the world's thousands of minor languages display grammatical intricacies comparable to Latin or Russian, each in their own way.  Relatively simplified languages like English, Persian, and Indonesian are the oddballs (and there are reasons why the "big" languages tend to be the simplified ones).  So each language displays many "weird" features which seem significant in individual cases, when you see them cited about just one or two languages, but which in fact appear in many languages around the world.  And the distribution of such features is pretty much random.  For example, evidentiary grammar crops up in various languages all over the world, showing no correlation with whatever "world-view" that feature supposedly generates.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was originally motivated by a desire to assert hidden elements of sophistication in cultures Westerners tend to consider primitive, by claiming that their languages make them more mentally attuned to this or that than we are.  But what about languages which, by the same logic, should make their speakers less attuned to things?  What about a language with no inflection, no explicit marking of case, gender, plurals (usually), tense, subjunctivity, or definiteness, to say nothing of the even more exotic (to us) categories which the Whorfians get so excited about in non-Western languages?  Wouldn't such a language logically give its speakers a rather dull, crude, coarse-grained "world-view"?  Well, that language actually exists.  It's Chinese, the language of one of the world's most sophisticated civilizations for thousands of years.

The world's languages show a vast and fascinating range of variations, but their specific features don't condition any particular "world-view" in their speakers.  The evidence just doesn't support such a claim.


Blogger Ami said...

And something I did not know.
Living life in my little babysitter bubble.

15 August, 2018 20:12  
Blogger Harry Hamid said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I own McWhorter's book, "The Power of Babel," but I don't believe I have actually read it. Which isn't all that uncommon for me. Maybe I'll tackle that one first.

15 August, 2018 20:17  
Anonymous NickM said...

Interesting stuff.

Might I make a small exception. Artificial, formal, languages such as maths or computer languages do shape patterns of thought. In many ways the history of maths and science is heavily influenced by formality and notation. An obvious example is place value arithmetic butthen so is The Calculus or vector notation. The notation used for Maxwell's equations of electromag nowadays are totally different and much easier to use than than the equations as written down by Maxwell.

16 August, 2018 02:02  
Anonymous PsiCop said...

Full disclosure: One of the reasons I got a dual degree, one of them being in linguistics, was because of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Having heard about it in high school, I was intrigued, and when I reached college took courses in linguistics in order to further investigate. It didn't take long before I was disabused of its validity (but maintained my interest in linguistics, especially historical linguistics).

I recall at least one piece of evidence against S/W being color distinctions: Native speakers of languages that have only one word to cover multiple ranges of colors, are quite able to distinguish among them nonetheless. The many fabled Inuit words for "snow" give us an example going in the other direction: While English has few native words for it, it nevertheless allows many ways of describing varieties of snow: We have "corn snow," "packed powder," etc. (Yes, I'm aware it may well not be true that Inuit languages have that many words for snow, but the example still stands.)

The problem is that S/W seems to make intuitive sense. And in the real world, it would seem to be true. Benjamin Whorf's supposed inspiration behind latching onto it in the first place came from his pre-academic time in industry when he noted that people assiduously refused to smoke around full barrels of gasoline, but did near empty ones (which was still dangerous due to the presence of fumes). He concluded the label "empty" removed the danger from people's minds - in other words, the word itself altered their perception of reality.

At any rate, McWhorter is always an interesting read.

16 August, 2018 07:25  
Blogger Adam said...

I learned some basic Japanese, it's quite crazy how much different everything else than English

16 August, 2018 16:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ami: I suspect most Americans aren't acquainted with exotic languages. To me it's a fascinating subject, though.

Harry: I don't think I have that one. He's great at making linguistics accessible to the average reader.

Nick: It's true that a lot of higher mathematics would be impossible without positional notation (I've seen this cited as a reason why Roman sea navigation never got advanced enough to cross the Atlantic), but this is really an example of a tool making it possible to do something that would be impossible without that tool, rather than language conditioning a world-view. Mathematics and computer languages aren't actually languages -- they're far more limited in what they can express (one couldn't translate a novel into a programming language). We just call those things languages metaphorically.

PsiCop: I'm glad you pursued your studies. Real linguistics is fascinating without getting into the weird psychobabble that the Whorfians try to tack on to it.

One reason why people sometimes list dozens and dozens of Eskimo words for snow is that "Eskimo" is a family of several languages -- they're collecting words from all of them, not just one. And if Eskimos ever migrated to a warmer climate, within a generation or two the fine distinctions of all that vocabulary would get blurry and eventually be forgotten. I don't think most modern Americans have a clear sense of the differences between dukes, barons, earls, counts, and so forth -- centuries ago those distinctions were vital to English-speaking culture, but now that they aren't, all those words just mean vaguely "nobles" to most people.

The barrel example strikes me as just lack of thoughtfulness, or not realizing that "empty" didn't imply completely cleaned. It's a mistake that could equally well be made in any language.

Adam: Japanese is definitely the weird one among the "big" languages. I learned it well enough to get by over there on a basic level for a few weeks. It definitely took getting used to.

16 August, 2018 18:57  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Learning other languages is interesting. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school and was shocked at how hard it was to pick up another language. Even after trying hard for 2 years to learn even a few phrases, I ended up giving up and picking a different elective because it just wasn't gonna happen. Different cultures language is a fascinating subject though because they are all so different.

17 August, 2018 09:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i had never heard of this before, but the alien contact movie 'arrival' seems to be based on the s/w hypothesis as it's foundational idea! disappointing to find out that the idea lacks legs, but the movie is still great :)

17 August, 2018 09:46  
Blogger Ten Bears said...

It's the vapors that burn. An empty gas can is far more dangerous than one full. Simple physics. Gas vapors burn, fluid gas does not.

For the adventursom, try this. Get a bucket of gas and a book of matches. You can toss lit matches into the bucket of gas all day long. Do not, however, try tossing a lit match into a partially filled gas can

Yes, trivial, yet ...

17 August, 2018 11:47  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: It really is pretty difficult. Even babies take years to fully learn their first language, and they're mentally geared for it in a way that adults aren't.

Kevin: I was originally quite interested in The Arrival when I heard it had alien language as a theme. When I found out it was based on Whorfism, I completely lost interest. I understand there's some nonsense about time being circular or something like that, too.

Thomas: There you are, though -- most people wouldn't know that. I certainly didn't.

17 August, 2018 19:23  
Anonymous Zog said...

A few years ago, Tyler Schnoebelen used a computer and data from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures to determine the world's weirdest languages.

His results can be found at https://web.archive.org/web/20150207160433/idibon.com/the-weirdest-languages

The weirdest one is Mixtec. I don't know where the cutoff for "big languages" is. If it's 25 million speakers, Oromo (#5) is the strangest. If it's languages most Americans have heard of, the strangest one is German (#10).

The least strange language is a big one: Hindi (#1)

His least expected result?

Even more surprising is that Mandarin Chinese is in the top 25 weirdest and Cantonese is in the bottom 10. This has to do with the fact that they have different sounds: Mandarin, unlike Cantonese has uvular continuants and has some limits on “velar nasals” (like English, Mandarin can have a sound like at the end of song but it can’t have that sound at the beginning of words—worldwide it’s rare to have that particular restriction).

18 August, 2018 08:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zog: That was interesting. It had occurred to me that German is kind of weird in having a different word order for subordinate clauses vs. main clauses, and in marking case on articles and adjectives but not (usually) on nouns. Those features probably aren't very common.

Among the languages I know anything about, the weirdest seem to be the Eskimo languages, but I may be taking an English-centric view.

18 August, 2018 15:44  

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