Best known as an iconoclastic, often controversial author and essayist on race, politics, and culture, McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, American studies, and contemporary civilization at Columbia University in New York City, also writes an incredible amount on language. In his new book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, McWhorter investigates, deconstructs, and challenges popular theories and assumptions about how language shapes thoughts and worldviews.
In your book, you critique two popular schools of linguistic thought: that language shapes thought, and people who speak a different language think differently on a cognitive level.
There is a popular idea that, if your language doesn’t have something that marks the future tense, then you’re a person that doesn’t think about the future. There’s a part of all of us; we privileged westerners—and I count myself as one of them—who feel that it’s important to see indigenous people from other cultures as our equals. And in some way, that they have a more sensitive and sophisticated [worldview] than we do in English.
But, as I try to get across in the book, if there’s any aspect of any language that means that a people speak or think in some neat, cool way, then there’s some other aspect of that language, when, if you apply that paradigm, you end up saying something bad about them. And nobody wants to hear that. If we’re going to be scientific about it, if you want to say one group of people are cool because their language does this, then you also have to say that they’re not cool, because it does something else. The way your language is structured does not give you a particular kind of glasses on how you see the world. What does [do that] is your culture.
Now, in the book, I say again and again, that language does affect thought, but in very small ways in very artificial and psychological experiments—that’s true. But to call it a world view... most linguists would be skeptical of that.
You also point out in the book that the “language shapes-thought-worldview” is associated with the linguist Benjamin Whorf.
Well, Whorf wasn’t the first to say that. There were people before him who planted the seeds. But he was the first person who worked it out into a theory. And he argued it most articulately about the Hopi Native American language that doesn’t mark tense: no past. And he linked that to the Hopi cultural sense of time being cyclical. That’s what I was exposed to as an undergraduate in the ‘80s. It sounds good, and it gives us a way to respect the Native Americans, who’ve been through so much. But right around that time, it was actually discovered that the Hopi have plenty of markers of tense: Whorf, frankly, was wrong. And, in general, there’s been a pushback against extreme Whorfianism. And this was long before me. I’m not alone. I’m just expressing a view that a number of professional linguists express privately, but don’t have the time to write a book about it.
Where does linguist and political science theorist Noam Chomsky fit in this?
Chomsky’s idea is that all people have an identical language blueprint that we’re all born with and that we’re all basically the same; with minor variations. Chomskyism offends a lot of linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists because it makes language completely abstract, and that it has nothing to do with the people who speak it. He makes language into a kind of computer program. So, for a lot of people, Whorfianism sounds better than that. I don’t agree with either of them. I don’t think there is a grammatical imprint in our brains in the way Chomskyians think. But I also don’t think that you can see a tribesperson in New Guinea, look at the way their language works, and think of that as reflecting how they experience life.
Do you feel that there is an element of political correctness involved with how westerners perceive the languages of non-westerners?
Yes. Whorfianism dovetails perfectly with what we might call political correctness: We want not to look down on people from non-first world countries. However, sometimes when something is politically correct, it isn’t empirically correct.
There are thousands of languages on Earth. We all live in an intricate and interlinked world. How do we get past Whorfianism and Neo-Whorfianism?
The popular conception of Neo-Whorfianism—the idea that a language determines the way you think—is, in its way, an immature, transitory stage in how people view languages. It used to be that your typically educated person thought that a real language was either French or German, and that in other places, people spoke in primitive dialects. I think we’ve got past that. All we really need to get to is that languages are interesting because of how different they are one from another. That’s it! We need to see languages as valuable in their diversity, because their diversity is splendid. I think we can get to that point.