LINGUIST List 25.4968

Mon Dec 08 2014

Review: Philosophy of Language: McWhorter (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 10-Jun-2014
From: Peter Backhaus <>
Subject: The Language Hoax
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: John H McWhorter
TITLE: The Language Hoax
SUBTITLE: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Peter Backhaus, Waseda University

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the author’s own words, this book is a “manifesto” (ix) against the common idea that language influences thought in any meaningful way. The main arguments are briefly sketched in the introductory section, which describes how this idea, best-known by the name of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or, as the author prefers, Whorfianism, has seen a revival in recent years. This renewed interest in possible ways that our language might shape the way we think has been triggered by a number of widely reported experimental studies of so-called Neo-Whorfian researchers as well as popular science books on the topic, most notably Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass (2010), to which the present book’s subtitle alludes. While McWhorter in his introduction expresses a largely favorable stance towards both the research itself and the secondary literature on it, he criticizes their somewhat self-enlarging effect in public discussion, to the extent that grammar can easily be conceived of as a pair of glasses that produces a certain “‘wordview’” (xviii). To show that this is a mistake is the main aim of this book.

Chapter 1, “Studies have shown,” reviews some of the recent research within the Neo-Whorfian paradigm, including the frequently quoted Russian color experiment (Winawer et al. 2007) that showed different reaction times in recognizing shades of blue depending on the participants’ first language; a controversially discussed study on Piraha numbers (Gordon 2004), which, as may be added here, also became a topic on LINGUIST List (e.g. Everett 2004); and Levinson’s (1996) well-known turning-the-tables research on language and space, among others. McWhorter one by one refutes the purported implications of these studies, on accounts which can be summarized as follows: “I’m unaware of a Neo-Whorfian study in which neither of these things are true: (1) it’s hard to say what it has to do with what it is to be human, or (2) the whole claim is like saying a tribe’s lack of a word for _calf_ is why they don’t raise cattle” (21).

Chapter 2 is called “Having It Both Ways”, and explains just why having it both ways is a problem. McWhorter argues against the assumption of a complementary relationship, in which cultural patterns influence linguistic structures, which -- once in place -- will have repercussions on how speakers of that language think. At this point, McWhorter introduces his “bubbles theory,” which holds that certain linguistic structures “pop up” at a certain point in time not because of cultural necessity but rather by mere chance. He exemplifies this with a discussion of the occurrence of evidential markers across the world’s languages, as well as the lack thereof, which he considers at least as important. McWhorter demonstrates that it is extremely difficult to find any regularities that could be attributed to the cultural environments in which evidential markers tend to be found. In this respect, as the author emphasizes, languages essentially differ from cultural things such as works of art or architecture, which are deeply imprinted by culture. Unlike these, however, and “that’s just it -- languages are not things” (55).

Chapter 3 is a brief “Interregnum On Culture,” inserted by the author to make clear that he does consider culture an important factor in the study of language. The best point to bring this home is the grammatical complexity of a given language, for which a statistically robust inverse correlation has been found with the size of a society using that language (e.g., Sinnemäki 2009). The whole point here, however, is that culture shapes language, not vice versa. McWhorter also takes this chapter as an opportunity to distance himself from the generative paradigm, whose continued predominance in linguistics he sees as one likely reason for the “spontaneous affection for Whorfianism among so many linguists and fellow travelers” (71).

In Chapter 4, called “Dissing the Chinese,” McWhorter introduces a somewhat uglier face of Whorfianism. The chapter centers on Bloom’s (1981) monograph on Chinese vs. English and how, in a wider sense, the two languages and their differing degrees of grammatical complexity can very easily be read as differences in cognitive patterns. The one difference between Bloom’s study and most other studies in the Whorfian paradigm, is that in the case of Chinese and the “telegraphic nature” of its grammar, it is the ‘other’ language that seems to be somewhat deficient, thus turning the benevolent nature of the Whorfian mission on its head. In the author’s words: “If languages that are bubbling over with fine-grained distinctions about materials and the definiteness or actuality of things are windows into the minds of their speakers, then what are we to suppose Chinese’s grammar tells us about the minds of _its_ speakers?” (77, emphasis original). As McWhorter points out, this Mr. Hyde edition of Whorf has not commonly been pursued by researchers, and when it was, as in the case of Bloom, it met with severe criticism.

In Chapter 5, McWhorter intentionally puts on a Whorfian hat to explore “What’s The Worldview From English.” He provides a detailed analysis of the sentence “Dey try to cook it too fast, I’m-a be eatin’ some pink meat!” (106) and the underlying thought patterns one might excavate here -- if only one wanted to. No matter how hard we try, however, and McWhorter tries fairly hard, he concludes that there is nothing about this sentence, or any other sentence for that matter, to be reasonably identified as indicative of a worldview shared by the speakers of English around the globe. At the same time, he wonders whether such a worldview wouldn’t have been attestable much more easily if the same sentence “had been uttered by a farmer in the hills of Vietnam” (132).

Chapter 6 is the concluding chapter, and it is called “Respect for Humanity.” Starting with the summarizing verdict that “the visceral appeal of Whorfianism is not scientific” (136), it recaptures the main points of the argument from the previous chapters and formulates three major problems of Whorfianism: (1) the question of how to deal with less favorable features in the grammar or vocabulary of a language, (2) a frequent exotification of other cultures and/or their languages, and (3) the way (neo-)Whorfian ideas feed into public discourse. Particularly with regard to this last point, the book, which clearly addresses a non-scientific audience too, concludes with an appeal to marvel at the universals that all languages share, rather than their differences.


_The Language Hoax_ is a well-written and stimulating book that asks uncomfortable questions and turns common arguments on their head. The author uses examples from an impressive number of languages across the globe to provide counter-examples to claims that may easily be made (and occasionally have been made) about the influence of language on thought. The discussion of evidential markers in Chapter 2 is but one example of this. In addition, and largely thanks to Chapter 3, McWhorter manages the difficult task of properly positioning himself within the vast territory between the two extremes of linguistic determinism and biolinguistics. His demonstration of what may happen when we get real about Whorf -- the inconvenient conclusions that would need to be drawn with respect to grammatically less complex languages such as Chinese (Chapter 4) and the all too shiny pearls of wisdom one could easily come up with when searching for the worldview of _the_ English speaker (Chapter 5) -- is at once entertaining and enlightening.

A point of criticism is the book’s tendency to take issue with the idea of “Whorfianism” as a whole, when there are actually rather distinct camps to be considered: Whorf and his immediate research legacy, the Neo-Whorfians with their more sound and sober approach to the topic, popular science books such as Deutscher’s (2010), which the author keeps referring to throughout his argument, and a general public (rightly) perceived to be all too easily excited over linguistic differences and their possible impacts on culture and thought. Of course McWhorter is well aware of these camps and sure to disentangle them on various occasions (most notably in the introduction (xix) and the conclusion (167)). However, frequent catch-all references to “Whorfianism”, “the Whorfian”, or “Whorfian thought” at times leave it unclear what exactly is the respective target of his criticism.

A second issue is McWhorter’s take on the empirical findings of Neo-Whorfian research, particularly differences in reaction time for solving certain experimental tasks and how these are pinned down to differing first languages of the participants. While acknowledging the empirical validity of the differences themselves, the author disregards these “nano-peep[s]” (87) as “weensy bias that has nothing to do with anything any psychologist, anthropologist, or political scientist could show us about how the people in question manage existence” (28). Given the significance of mental chronometry in so many scientific fields, including psychology, I’m not sure if his somewhat ridiculed “_one tenth of a second_” (9, emphasis original) should be done away with that easily.

Finally, and perhaps related to the second point, I was a little confused by the following statement towards the end of the book: “the media as well as academia continue to promulgate the idea that the question as to whether each language is a special pair of lenses is an open one” (135). To the best of my knowledge, this question is indeed an open one and, though I’m almost uncannily in line with the author’s views on the topic, for the time being should remain that way. That’s how science works.

As can be seen from the above, McWhorter’s thought-provoking manifesto provides much stuff to think about and keep the discussion on language, culture and thought going. It is suitable for both undergraduate and graduate classes (I just did it in one of mine, in combination with Deutscher’s book), to provide answers to the – yes, open – question of whether the world looks different in other languages, or just the same in any language.


Bloom, Alfred H. 1981. The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Deutscher, Guy. 2010. Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. London: Random House.

Everett, Daniel. 2004. Re: Mundurucu, Piraha Counting. LINGUIST List 15.3121.

Gordon, Peter. 2004. Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science 306. 496-499.

Levinson, Steven C. 1996. Relativity in spatial conception and description. In J.J. Gumperz &amp; S.C. Levinson (eds.), Rethinking Linguistic Relativity (pp. 177-202). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinnemäki, Kaius. 2009. Complexity in core argument marking and population size. In G. Sampson, D. Gil &amp; P. Trudgill (eds.), Language Complexity As an Evolving Variable (pp. 126-140). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winawer J., Witthoft N., Frank M.C., Wu L., Wade A.R., Boroditsky L. 2007. Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(19). 7780-7785.


Peter Backhaus is Associate Professor at Waseda University, Tokyo. His main research interests are in sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and written language.

Page Updated: 08-Dec-2014