Monday, 23 October 2017

book review: The Language Hoax

John McWhorter.
The Language Hoax: why the world looks the same in any language.
Oxford University Press. 2014

McWhorter is arguing against the notion that language affects thought in some profound way. He does not deny that subtle experiments consistently show that speakers of different languages have minutely different reaction times, or other differences, in certain respects. But that is the point: they are small, almost undetectable, differences, not huge contrasts. A difference that makes hardly any difference is hardly a difference.

His main argument is that people think these things are more impressive than they are because of the way they are reported in the press; that they think the differences are stranger and more unique than they are because they don’t know enough different languages; and that they think the differences are more important than they are because of some kind of paternalistic anti-racism (it is typically non-English languages that are shown to make more distinctions than does English, despite there being examples in the opposite direction).

In particular, the lack of knowledge of further languages exhibiting the particular features can make for wild over-generalisations. English doesn’t make this specific distinction, but language X does: therefore speakers of X must be more sensitive to these distinctions; somehow speakers of X need to make these distinctions because of their rich culture. On the face of it, this might sound plausible; but once you learn that languages W, Y, Z of nearby peoples also don’t make these distinctions, whereas languages A, B, C of very different peoples do, the argument is less persuasive. For example, McWhorter discusses the Amazonian Tuyuca language, which has evidential markers, little suffixes that indicate how you came to know the things you say (I hear, I am told, I don’t know for sure, ...):
[p39] One could suppose it must have something to do with living in a rain forest where one must always be on the alert to dangerous animals, or to the presence of other animals on which one depends for sustenance. Wouldn't being a Tuyuca seem to require constant attention to whether one hears something, whether one can depend on someone's statement that there is a new source of a certain food somewhere far off, and so on?
   This sounds eminently plausible when we think only of the Tuyuca. However, as odd as evidential markers seem to an English speaker, they are actually quite common worldwide. Crucially, to perceive any kind of link between culture and evidential markers from a worldwide perspective is […] extremely difficult.
   Basically, to link evidential markers to what a people are like is to say that some groups are more skeptical than others. […] However, who among us is prepared to say that the Ancient Greeks, who produced some of the world's first philosophical treatises scrupulously examining all propositions no matter how basic, and lived in a society always under siege from other empires as well as from rival Greeks themselves, were a relatively accepting, unskeptical people with only a modest interest in sources of information?
It is not that the subtleties of language structure greatly influence thought, and that those differences are caused by local cultures and environments. It is rather that languages just naturally and continually embellish and simplify and grow and shrink and change, and have manifold complexities in different parts of their structure.

McWhorter brings to bear his immense knowledge of language in this lively and provocative small book. Having read it, I will no longer swallow reports that language significantly affects thought, and I now know a lot more about the rich complexity of languages.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

No comments:

Post a Comment