The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language - John McWhorter (2014)

Chapter 3. An Interregnum On Culture

IT CAN BE SURPRISING to see how weak the connection is between language structure and people. Readers may justifiably sense an implication at this point in my argumentation that language has nothing to do with culture, or at least nothing important or interesting.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and before I proceed with my case, I must make clear that I am referring solely to a particular argument about language and culture, rather than, say, dismissing the entire field of linguistic anthropology.

Whorfianism versus Words

Especially intuitive to all of us is that words and expressions in our language can be cultural. A reader might ask, for example, “How can he mean that Insha’Allah [God willing] isn’t an integral part of expressing oneself as a Muslim?”

I say: yes, these things are linguistic renditions of culture. Cultures are lived by human beings; human beings have language; hence, language will have words and expressions for aspects of culture. If language and culture never intersected, our job would be to explore why in the world—why, ever in the world—they did not.

Culture can even, in a direct and obvious way, require expression through grammar as well as words. Geography is the usual example. As we have seen, a culture that takes place on flat terrain will mean that Guugu Yimithirr speakers say “north of me” instead of “in front of me,” while a culture in a mountainous region like the Tzeltal might say “uphill” rather than “left.”

Good: my question is not whether language and culture intersect. They can (although only can: the Tzotzil living in the same mountainous environment still say “left” just like someone in Detroit). However, my interest is in Whorfianism, which is something quite different from words for things front and center, such as objects, concepts, and topographies. The Whorfian claim is about more than whether languages have terms for what things and surroundings their speakers think about.

Whorfianism claims that languages make their speakers think in a certain way—with language not just giving labels to particular things and concepts in the culture, but making people think in certain overarching patterns, such as processing time as up and down rather than across, or feeling, eating, and drinking as the same action. My question, like Whorfianism’s, is about language on the level beyond the basic one of affixing labels to persons, places, things, practices. The focus is on how a language’s grammar works, its random particularities in vocabulary like distinguishing dark blue from light blue, its not happening to have a future tense, or its having the articles the and a, which is hard for, say, Russians (whose language has no the or a) to learn in English.

That is, Whorfianism is not about the things a language’s speakers immediately think of as particular in their language—“We say Insha’Allah,” “We live near a mountain”—but the things they dismiss with a shrug that turn out to be quite unusual in comparison to languages they have no reason to know much about. That is, the kind of things that made Whorf’s ideas novel and still attended to decades later. The Tuyucan, for instance, might ask, “Are there people who don’t have to utter a suffix showing how they know anything they mention?”

Do these things—Whorf’s “intricate systematizations”—mean that a language’s speakers see the world in a unique way? When a Muslim person says Insha’Allah it is certainly an expression of her culture, a label for an orientation integral to Islam—but the question is whether there is anything about Arabic as a grammatical or vocabulary system that parallels the Muslim soul, in a holistic sense, beyond that of simple labels for things and concepts. I salute anyone who masters Arabic. Yet how much of what they tore themselves up to get a handle on, such as the verb endings, the gender, the definite articles, the guttural sounds—how much of that, not just expressions like Insha’Allah—was a matter of getting a sense of how Muslims think?

Essentially, none. They mastered a grammatical conglomeration that happened to come out the way it did—one language out of the six thousand variations on a theme that the world’s languages are.

There Are Words and There Are Words

The intersection between language and culture, however, goes deeper than the plain-vanilla fact that languages have words for things their speakers consider important. For example, the aforementioned is actually but one symptom of a broader, less obvious, and therefore more engrossing aspect of language: what is often termed ethnosemantics. Ethnosemantics explores how languages’ usage of a word or group of words, which on the surface seem as if they would have the same meanings for all people everywhere, differ according to the worldview of the language’s speakers.

Surely, then, the fact that the Chinese have been using the formal you pronoun nín with more frequency since the 1980s is connected to something cultural, namely the social transformation as Communism gives ever more space to capitalism, which soft pedals the Communist focus on egalitarianism in favor of more traditional modes of hierarchical deference. Few would dissociate, either, that very strain of millennia-old deference in the culture from the fact that Mandarin has distinct words for elder versus younger brother (or sister).

Whorfianism, in this light, can be seen as an attempt to expand the ethnosemantic perspective beyond intuitive and immediately demonstrable cases like the Mandarin ones, and it is this expansion that my manifesto questions. To trace an increase in the usage of a formal you word to a growing fashion for formality is one thing. To trace an absence of a word for blue to seeing the sky as less blue than English speakers do is another thing—and, although those making that claim do not have occasion to consider—akin to tracing obscure groups’ lack of separate words for eat and drink to being less alive to the gastronomic pleasures than we are.

Whorfianism, that is, proposes that the ethnosemantic perspective applies beyond the obvious. I, on the contrary, argue that it applies exactly where basic intuition would place it but no further. In no way, however, does that dismiss the richness of actual ethnosemantic investigations.

What’s with Stand-up Comedy?

Another way that language and culture intersect, one I find especially illuminating for addressing human differences in a systematic way, is in an approach called ethnography of communication. In all human groups there is a certain set of fundamental aspects of how language is used.

Described in the abstract they seem rather obvious, and even dull. For example: using language might involve one, two, three, or many more persons. Using language might take place at a sermon, or a wedding, or in a casual conversation. Language might involve various goals: a bargain, some amusement, an argument, seduction. Language might involve statements, questions, or quotations. Language might be solemn or jocular. Language might come in a continuous stream, or occur between long pauses, or be delivered right up close to your face. Language might be delivered orally or on paper or in some other way.

Yes, by itself this hardly seems a grand insight. However, when human language is viewed according to this toolkit (all of the above alternate possibilities have specific terminological designations, and there are some more of them), seemingly “weird” practices worldwide become utterly, diversely, normal.

In Panama, for instance, every other day the Kuna listen to a two-hour speech by their chief in which he discusses politics, religion, or history. An official responder says “It is so” after each “verse” of the speech. The speech is couched in a highly formal and allusive fashion, after which a spokesman interprets it in clearer terms for the audience. The chief signals that his speech is over by abruptly lowering his voice.

To us this sounds like a “rite.” With all due respect for it, we may have a quiet sense that it seems a tad over the top or at least arbitrary. We, for example, do not listen regularly to two-hour speeches about “the way it is.” However, Americans very much did up through the nineteenth century—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a sidebar in an event whose focus was orator Edward Everett speaking grandly for two hours about, very much, “the way it is.” Americans were more like the Kuna back then, although they wouldn’t have thought of it that way.

But more to the point, even today the difference between Americans and the Kuna in terms of that sermon is merely one of what is called instrumentality in ethnography of communication terminology. The Kuna get frequent doses of commentary delivered orally—but many of us get at least an hour’s worth of commentary about “the way it is” daily via the radio, the television, or the Internet. What differs is the medium, the instrumentality, not the substance.

The Kuna chief speaks in an artificially elevated register—but then so many of us receive religious teachings in one as well, only written on the page—again, in a different instrumentality. The chief’s speech register differs from ordinary Kuna in a fashion similar to how the English of the St. James Bible differs from colloquial modern English. Cultures differ in where they situate high language as opposed to casual speech—what ethnography of communication work terms rather opaquely a different act sequence—but not in whether they have it.

The Kuna have their interlocutor explain the language. Many of us will recognize this from Sunday school, but it also applies to the function of the Sunday service itself, or to the extent that the event was about “the way it is,” a schoolteacher or college professor getting across what scholars have discovered. Or, how weird that the Kuna chief lowers his voice to show that the speech is over—but when a football game gets exciting a sports announcer slides into saying everything on a higher pitch and concludes with strangely elongated vowels (“and here it goes … ARLINGTON GOES FOR IT, HE GETS RIGHT PAST PATTERSON, HE’S OFF LIKE A SHOT, IT’S ALL OVER, ARLINGTON SCORES THE TOUCHDOWN AND THAT’S THE GAAAME, TWENTY-ONE SEVEN …”). Think about it—the announcer isn’t in the game to get this vocally heated up, and microphone technology absolves him of any need to raise his voice or elongate his vowels like Edward Everett had to. Yet an announcer who auditioned by just quietly describing what he was seeing would never be hired: a sports announcer must master, in a performative sense, a certain manner, in ethnography of communication terminology, just as the Kuna chief must.

And as for the Kuna responder repeatedly interjecting “It is so,” how odd is this compared to, say, Ed McMahon? The late-night talk show “sidekick” is different from the Kuna “responder” only in which event, in ethnography of communication terminology, he works at—a broadcast performance versus a speech. Really, they are not all that different.

To the Kuna, utterly “ritual” would be the American practice of stand-up comedy, where a person is paid a fee to stand up before an assemblage of people and recite to them comments carefully composed to make their diaphragms titter with laughter for twenty minutes, and then thanks them for laughing and walks off the stage. This is as peculiar and coded a practice as any tribal one we might see on the Discovery Channel and is based on a fragile web of expectations as to speech style, response, and performativity.

Certainly, that we find stand-up comedy so ordinary is an interesting intersection of language and culture, which the ethnography of communication paradigm makes sense of. One will find a similar approach called semiotic functionalism as another way in which we could never understand how language was being used without framing it as a cultural variation.

Culture Shaping Grammar: It Happens

There is even a way in which culture correlates with what languages are like structurally, as opposed to how they are used. Languages spoken by small indigenous groups tend to be more grammatically complex than widely spoken ones and are more likely to have the odder, harder to produce sounds like the famous clicks of a family of languages spoken by the Khoi-San hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. This surprises most people. One might expect that complex grammar would be more typical of “advanced” civilizations. Anthropologists and sociologically oriented linguists often remark that they would expect that intimate groups would have less need of the precision of things like gender and elaborate verb tenses, because shared context could compensate for the fragmentation and impersonality of urban life.

The reason languages with fewer speakers are more complicated is not because the complexity befits their speakers in some way, but because for a language to be spoken by massive numbers of people tends to mean that it was imposed on nonnative speakers at some point, and therefore beaten up by the mundane fact that it’s tough to really learn a language after adolescence.

In other words, the complex kind of language is a norm—it’s the way almost every language on earth has become over countless millennia of stepwise accretions of “mess.” First a feminine gender marker, then a subjunctive mood, next some evidentials, later a language becomes tonal—one never knows just what will happen, but something will, and then something else, and then something else. After a while you have the awesome mess that is a language. The only thing that interferes with this norm is the odd circumstance of people learning a language as adults rather than as children—something that has happened mostly in recent millennia as technology has allowed vast and rapid population movements.

Thus it’s the more streamlined languages that are the departures. It’s not an accident that English has no grammatical gender of the Spanish el sombrero “the hat”/la luna “the moon” sort and rather feeble verb conjugation consisting largely of scattered -s and -ed. When Scandinavian Vikings invaded England starting in the eighth century, they learned Old English, a vastly more complicated language than modern English, about as well as the typical American learns French or Spanish. There were so many of them, marrying English women, that their children heard their version of Old English as much as native Old English. In the absence of media or widespread literacy, after a while the Vikings’ way of speaking transformed what English was.

Within the context of this book, however, we should notice that while this is indeed an example of culture shaping grammar, the process does not hinge on “needs” specific to particular cultures. That English is relatively streamlined as languages go is not because something about being an English speaker requires one to be less precise than a herdsman speaking an obscure language in Siberia, but because of something quite brutal that befell it in its history. “Needs” were relevant only in the sense that adults under such circumstances “need” to communicate as best they can, which is different from “needing” not to have gender or a pluperfect.

The facts are similar for Mandarin Chinese, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, and other curiously adult-friendly languages worldwide. Conversely, languages like the click languages, Navajo with its universally irregular verbs, or Yélî Dnye with its thousands of prefixes and suffixes are not complex because their speakers need them to be that way, but because that level of complexity—massively surpassing what humans need for communication—is what all languages are normally like. This means, however, that languages like English result from a cultural impact, in a broad sense, on how a grammar is built.

Language and Universals: A Clarification

I hope to have made it clear that I, like most investigators of language, feel that an academic culture that treated language entirely apart from the cultures of the people that speak them would be not only arid but empirically hopeless.

For example, in the message that languages show the universal in humanity, some spontaneously hear a shout-out to Noam Chomsky’s proposal about an innate “universal grammar” that all languages share. That theory, now subscribed to by a worldwide community of practicing syntacticians, sees language as based on a conglomeration of neurally encoded structures that determine how words are arranged in sentences. Identifying the hypothesized neural structures is beyond science at this point, but Chomskyan syntax attempts to elucidate them via inference, comparing sentence patterns in various languages and modeling them according to abstract algorhythmic schemas of the kind that computer scientists are familiar with.

A fundamental tenet of this enterprise is that all languages are based on a single universal grammar pattern, with their variations due to alternate settings of various “switches.” Flip one switch that controls word order in a very specific way and you have the difference between a language that says You took his book and You book his took. Flip another one to determine whether you have to use subject pronouns or not: I speak when it’s off and Spanish’s hablo with no yo for I when it’s on. All a child has to learn is which way her language flips its switches and then plug in the words.

To Chomskyans, then, diversity in languages’ grammars is a kind of illusion: they are all the same language underneath, and to study languages awed with their diversity rather than with their underlying likeness is to miss “the point.” Less charitable practitioners have even been known to dismiss the study of language from other angles as “not real linguistics,” less intellectually rigorous than delving into the densely jargoned tools of Chomkyan syntax.

Predictably, quite a few linguists are otherwise inclined, feeling not only that they deserve the name, but that they consider an approach to language that takes no account of its speakers and what they are like as intellectually barren and even empirically hopeless. To them, language, as a fundamentally social phenomenon, cannot be treated as if it were simply a computer software program. In truth, despite a certain glamour factor surrounding Chomskyan syntacticians—Chomsky’s name helps, and in the 1960s when the approach was new and less hermetically abstract than it has since become, it did revolutionize linguistics as a field—most linguists resist its uniquely stringent conception of a queerly complex mental module distinct from all else that cognition comprises.

I count myself among them: my claim that languages’ diversity teaches us what we have in common is not an espousal of the conception of universal grammar I have just described. Like most linguists, I believe that there is an innate predisposition to use language. However, a promising hypothesis as to its neural configuration will be compatible with the fundamentals of evolutionary theory and human cognition, in a fashion that Chomskyan syntax does not even make an attempt to be. Moreover, much of my linguistics work is focused on how sociohistorical conditions have affected how languages are structured throughout human history, while some of my work for the media has explored language in modern social context.

Overall, the spontaneous affection for Whorfianism among so many linguists and fellow travelers is partly rooted in a visceral resistance to a certain cultural hegemony that Chomskyan linguistics maintains. One is to question a linguistics that has no room for personhood. I do think that this position itself becomes somewhat reflexive and oversimplified—the study of indigenous cultures, or how people construct their identities through language, will play no role in the discovery of the neural configuration that allows human speech regardless of where one is born. Yet, my manifesto is not a dog-whistle to Chomskyan conceptions of an abstract universal grammar that models English and Japanese as the same language with a different set of switch flips. How we talk is, certainly, connected to how we are.

Moving Along

As such, there are ways that language intersects with culture beyond those I have discussed here. I take issue with the approaches and conclusions of none of them, and even on the basis of this brief chapter, the case rests: language would seem to have an awful lot to do with culture.

What this book takes issue with is a specific question. Does a language’s structure, in terms of what it does with words and how it puts them together, conspire to shape thought to such an extent that we would reasonably term it a “worldview,” a perspective on life robustly different from that of someone whose language structures words and grammar differently? Does every language, as Jack Hitt phrased it, have “its unique theology and philosophy” quietly but mind-alteringly “buried in its very sinews”?

Many feel that the answer to that question is yes, but their grounds for that conclusion create as many problems as they solve. I can now explain why, with it clear that I am arguing not that language and culture have no relationship but that they are separate in an aspect highly particular but widely discussed and with significant implications. Let us move on, for example, to China.