A review of “The Language Hoax”, by John McWhorter

One of the approximately eleven books I managed to stash away in my tiny carry on and take with me back to Mexico after the Polyglot Conference was an autographed copy of John McWhorter’s “The Language Hoax”, signed in situ because he was one of the speakers at the conference (and being honest, I felt like it was fine to fangirl a little bit because his presentation was quite frankly eureka-inducing, at least for me). I really enjoyed his exposition on a side of Whorfianism that I had really never paid much attention to.

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Truth be told, as a language learner I only became aware of the theory of linguistic relativity (another name for Whorfianism) after I’d been learning Japanese for several years and started noticing that my thought and learning process had changed (more like simplified); I wondered if the language had changed me somehow. Now I know this to have been more due to me refining and polishing the way I learn and less due to the Japanese language itself, but this event still led me to learn about Whorfianism and the connections between thought and language. Back then I considered Whorfianism to be a natural, logical posit, but this book has led me to reconsider my position.

One last disclaimer: every point of view I express here is that of a language learner by hobby, with nothing but a smattering of formal knowledge in linguistics. If anything, feel free to construe this as the opinion of someone for who cares more about the practical side of language than the academics behind it.

First of all, what the hell IS Whorfianism?

It’s a tempting postulate that, in a nutshell, implies the possibility of cognitive processes like thinking and experiencing can be influenced by a person’s language. It seems to hint that the language we speak forms our view of the world, not to mention things like our behavior and response to stimuli: the problem, according to McWhorter, is that it lends itself to the involuntary (or very voluntary, depending on your political POV) diminishing of the mental capacities of others. If you put some thought into it, it’s an irresistible (and yet somewhat irresponsible) stance where language shapes thought and culture, rather than just being a part of a whole lot of other factors that go into what makes us different. You may find Whorfianism (the name I’ll use from now on) by other names: principle of linguistic relativity, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Whorfian hypothesis, just to name a few.

Now, to be fair, Benjamin Whorf (after who this whole hullabaloo is named) himself was never quite so assertive about language and thought being the same thing

To be fair, it’s not as though language has absolutely no connexion with how we think and perceive the world around us; if anything, that as a traveller I’ve had to witness a very real correlation between unilingualism and various degrees of xenophobia shows some evidence of how our first language influences our reactions, but like most things in life, this is not universally applicable (that is to say, some xenophobes are monoglots, but not all monoglots are xenophobes and some xenophobes speak more than one language). If anything, all it means is that language can sometimes become a mind’s cage: that said, I think the existence of The Polyglotist and countless other language learning blogs more than challenges the notion that language IS a cage.

Language influences how we process thought in funny, but infinitesimal ways: things like if language A doesn’t have a word for royal blue whereas language B does, doesn’t magically mean speakers of language A are less sensitive to color than speakers of language B, and so on. That Japanese only has two particles for indicating direction (of location, action, goal) whereas English has over 30 prepositions doesn’t mean the Japanese are directionally challenged. That’s one of the points most emphasized in this book,

A language learner’s personal take

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This book answered some questions for me, but it also created others. Let’s say that language does not affect thought in native speakers–but what of learners who take the language to an advanced level and are better at understanding cultural nuances? (Or does this all just mean we’re quite simply easy to influence?) Is this a whole different ballpark?

As a language learner it’s hard not to feel like the languages I’ve learnt over almost ten years now have “modified” me to a certain point, but even I can see that’s an awfully convenient way to explain how my way of thinking and dealing with the world around me. Then again (and we’re departing from the Whorfian question here, so this is no longer covered in the book), how learnt language affects the mind and culture of the advanced learner is probably a different matter than how it affects the native speaker.

All in all, THE LANGUAGE HOAX was a great read, and I’m glad I picked it up at the Conference. In a way, it’s moved me to consider and think about language itself from a different perspective, although in all honesty it’s all got very little to do with my concerns about what language does to a learner, not a native. I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my readers whose focus is purely on language learning, but if you’re even a little bit curious about linguistics, its currents and problems, I think you might enjoy it.