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

John H McWhorter, Author
John H. McWhorter. Oxford Univ, $19.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-19-936158-8
Reviewed on: 03/10/2014
Release date: 04/01/2014
McWhorter (The Power of Babel), a linguistics professor at Columbia University, celebrates the diversity of languages and the cultures that speak them in this persuasive rebuttal to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first advanced in the field of linguistics in the 1930s. That hypothesis holds that language channels the way a culture views the world—that Russians, who have two specific words for blue, are more sensitive than other cultures to nuances of color; that the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, whose language has no numbers, don’t know how to count; and so on. Challenging a number of Whorfian studies and the cultural assumptions extrapolated from them, McWhorter shows how improbable it is that a culture’s language is encoded with its worldview: that the Amazon Tuyucas, whose language is thick with evidential markers that establish the veracity of information that is being conveyed, are somehow more skeptical than the ancient Greeks, whose language has no evidential markers, for example. McWhorter writes with liveliness and enthusiasm, noting: “All languages are, in their own ways, as utterly awesome as creatures, snowflakes, Haydn string quartets, or what The Magnificent Ambersons would have been like if Orson Welles had been allowed to do the final edit.” This book makes very accessible to the lay reader some of the more esoteric theories of linguistic studies. (May)