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Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same…
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Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (edition 2016)

by John H. McWhorter (Author)

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1957124,119 (3.66)3
Japanese has a term that covers both green and blue. Russian has separate terms for dark and light blue. Does this mean that Russians perceive these colors differently from Japanese people? Does language control and limit the way we think? This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. Linguist John McWhorter argues that while this idea is mesmerizing, it is plainly wrong. It is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around. The fact that a language has only one word for eat, drink, and smoke doesn't mean its speakers don't process the difference between food and beverage, and those who use the same word for blue and green perceive those two colors just as vividly as others do. McWhorter shows not only how the idea of language as a lens fails but also why we want so badly to believe it: we're eager to celebrate diversity by acknowledging the intelligence of peoples who may not think like we do. Though well-intentioned, our belief in this idea poses an obstacle to a better understanding of human nature and even trivializes the people we seek to celebrate. The reality -- that all humans think alike -- provides another, better way for us to acknowledge the intelligence of all peoples.… (more)
Member:kaixo
Title:Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
Authors:John H. McWhorter (Author)
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (2016), Edition: Reprint, 204 pages
Collections:Your library, e-books
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Tags:language, linguistics, culture

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The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Author John McWhorter’s Words on the Move and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue are two of my favorite books about language. Both are written in a way that makes the science of linguistics accessible to pop-science readers like me. This book is written for a different audience, specifically for those who are familiar with the Whorf hypotheses, the theory that language shapes its speakers’ perceptions and worldview. As someone with only a vague awareness of it I didn’t get a lot out of this book. Some of the observations, such as that languages spoken by smaller groups tend to be more complex, were interesting but overall this was more academic and narrower in scope than I expected. ( )
  wandaly | Jul 12, 2021 |
In this book, John McWhorter takes on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, with vigor and enthusiasm, and his usual excellent research.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says, basically, that language shapes the way we see and understand the world. One example, a fairly basic one, is that Japanese has one word that identifies both blue and green, while Russian has one word for dark blue and another word for light blue. Does this mean the Japanese can't see different shades of blue and green as clearly as Russians can?

No. The Japanese can see these colors just as well; they just describe them differently.

A more complex example is verb tenses. English has a future tense, a verb tense we use to refer to the future. "I will go out tomorrow." Many other languages, do too, but also many other languages don't have a future tense. Does this mean the speakers of those languages can't plan for the future?

No. Once again, they can anticipate the future, refer to it, plan for it. They just use other means of doing so, often context-dependent.

McWhorter explains this much better than I can, and takes on the idea not just as bad linguistics, but as bad linguistics that, while it originated in a desire to recognize the worth of non-Western or "primitive" cultures, has a pernicious tendency to promote condescension towards other cultures, and a certain ethnocentrism, accepting our own language and culture as obviously the standard.

While not having the lightness and well-used, intentional silliness that enlivens some of his other works, he makes excellent, informative, and entertaining use of the differences among languages in the course of explaining what he sees as wrong in much Sapir-Whorf analysis. And it should be noted, in this context, that English, far from being the obviously normal language we who speak it as our native tongue tend to assume, is in many ways downright weird, an outlier in many ways.

The same, of course, is true of other languages. Each language has evolved on its own path, and the changes are often happenstance, not response to anything to do with the environment of their speakers. Culture and language aren't all that closely related.

It's a fascinating listen, and well worth your time.

I bought this audiobook. ( )
  LisCarey | Jan 28, 2021 |
A solid debunking of Neo-Whorfianism (and prescriptivism, to boot). ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
McWhorter is out to dismantle the Whorfian idea that language shapes thought in any ways but the most subtle. I’m not particularly impressed by his arguments that most of the differences are matters of a few hundred milliseconds (e.g., in distinguishing colors or numbers of things), because a few hundred milliseconds can make lethal differences in some situations (e.g., deciding whether the object in a person’s hand is a gun or a wallet). However, he scores more points by noting that contrasts between languages are usually offered in a vacuum, without looking at whether other languages have similar features but not similar cultural cognition. McWhorter argues that differences such as “are there two or more words for plural ‘they’?” and “is there an identifiable future tense?” are basically accidental variations that get baked into languages for no other reason than that all languages develop frills. McWhorter acknowledges that languages differ—for one thing, languages that were imposed on lots of people by conquest tend to be simpler just because lots of people ended up learning it as adults. But in terms of shaping thought—well, Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton are all native English speakers. It doesn’t seem to be the biggest of influences on significant thoughts. ( )
  rivkat | Aug 19, 2016 |
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Japanese has a term that covers both green and blue. Russian has separate terms for dark and light blue. Does this mean that Russians perceive these colors differently from Japanese people? Does language control and limit the way we think? This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. Linguist John McWhorter argues that while this idea is mesmerizing, it is plainly wrong. It is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around. The fact that a language has only one word for eat, drink, and smoke doesn't mean its speakers don't process the difference between food and beverage, and those who use the same word for blue and green perceive those two colors just as vividly as others do. McWhorter shows not only how the idea of language as a lens fails but also why we want so badly to believe it: we're eager to celebrate diversity by acknowledging the intelligence of peoples who may not think like we do. Though well-intentioned, our belief in this idea poses an obstacle to a better understanding of human nature and even trivializes the people we seek to celebrate. The reality -- that all humans think alike -- provides another, better way for us to acknowledge the intelligence of all peoples.

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