Any Way You Say It, It's Blue

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, August 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Any Way You Say It, It's Blue


Kerstin Hoge on a rebuttal of the theory that the language we speak affects how we think

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

By John H. McWhorter

Oxford University Press, 208pp, £12.99

ISBN 9780199361588

Published 10 July 2014

A spectre is haunting public discourse - the spectre of popular Whorfianism.

Named for the early 20th-century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, Whorfianism (also known as linguistic relativity) describes the view that the language we speak affects the way we think. It is an idea that has received considerable popular interest, leading to the widespread belief that there are as many different worldviews as there are languages. The Language Hoax presents John McWhorter's "manifesto" against this position.

By calling his book a manifesto, he places himself in the tradition of revolutionaries and iconoclastic Modernists. Indeed, his agenda goes beyond a scientific rebuttal of popular Whorfianism, since he aims to show not only its empirical flaws but also its political dangers. While the former concern a lack of heft in the cognitive effects of cross-linguistic differences, McWhorter understands the latter to be the exotification of speakers of non-Western languages and thus complicity in the perpetuation of inequality. What is linguistically different from Standard Average European languages, he argues, is fetishised as a defining cultural difference to be celebrated, precisely because speakers of languages other than Standard Average European are not self-evidently considered to be equal to Westerners.

McWhorter is careful to emphasise that he does not dispute that language and culture intersect. As he puts it, "cultures are lived by human beings; human beings have language; hence, language will have words and expressions for aspects of culture". An example is provided by politeness distinctions in pronouns to express different degrees of respect for the addressee. In some languages, such as English, a single pronoun is used to address others, whereas other languages have binary or even multiple distinctions. In languages with politeness distinctions, such as German, it is important to use the right pronoun in conversation, and the patterns of usage are dictated by culturally specific norms (which entails that they can vary across a single language area). Yet cross-linguistic differences in pronoun repertoire do not mean that speakers of different languages necessarily think differently about social organisation and relationships, as evidenced by the fact that the loss of the English two-tiered pronoun system in the 17th century did not prompt a less stratified society.

But wait: if German forces speakers to encode respect to the addressee by pronoun choice, must German speakers not pay attention to aspects of the conversational context, such as the social status of their interlocutor, that English speakers can choose to ignore? It is a plausible hypothesis, first put forward by the psycholinguist Dan Slobin, that when formulating an utterance, speakers organise their thinking in accordance with the linguistic categories that require expression in their language. Slobin's original "thinking-for-speaking" proposal offers a modified, neo-Whorfian relativism: language influences thought by affecting the type of thinking that occurs "online" during the planning and processing of speech.

The suggestion that different languages impose different thinking-for-speaking demands does not equate to the claim that different languages create different worldviews. Thinking for speaking is both more persuasive and less dramatic a hypothesis than traditional Whorfianism; it leaves unanswered whether language has cognitive consequences that extend beyond speech time.

Recent years have seen novel attempts to address the question of whether language has more wide-reaching consequences for thought, with effects of language differences manifesting themselves truly outside language. …

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