Respect for Humanity - The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language - John McWhorter

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

Chapter 6. Respect for Humanity

THE VISCERAL APPEAL OF Whorfianism is not scientific.

Many will disagree, and the Neo-Whorfian researchers among them will do so with eminent justification. Neo-Whorfian researchers are, indeed, motivated by a scientific interest in the human mind. The question they pose is, quite simply, whether language influences thought, an issue with implications for broader ones, such as whether the capacity for language is embodied in the brain separately from other cognitive functions and the question as to which aspects of language might be the ones that affect thought.

However, that orientation to the question, one part clinical and one part philosophical, is not what lights up people beyond the small world of academic psychologists and anthropologists doing hard-core studies on Whorfianism. As I have noted, even among the originators of the paradigm, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, his mentor Edward Sapir, and pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas, the main motivation of their observations about language and thought was to demonstrate that peoples we thought of as primitive were anything but. Whorf’s aim in painting Hopi as channeling its speakers into feeling time as cyclical was not to detachedly assess whether language influences thought. Even a cursory reading of his works makes it radiantly clear that he had an agenda: to show that to be a Hopi was not to be a benighted savage.

That agenda was well intended and, in its time, urgent even among the intelligentsia. In Whorf’s day, you could page through an edition of Webster’s Second New International Dictionary and find Apaches casually described as “of warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” The agenda is, in itself, hardly inapplicable today either—and is indeed fundamental to Whorfianism’s place in today’s intellectual culture, beyond the small circles of actual Neo-Whorfian practitioners. They themselves craft rigorous and uncompromisingly specific studies of fine points, often of languages spoken by people few dismiss as backward such as Russians and the Japanese.

But typically, today’s sideline spectator, academic or not—in whom we might term the philosophy Popular Whorfianism—seeks in this work not a question as to whether language influences thought, but rather to a demonstrationthat all of the world’s people are the mental equals of educated Westerners.

Advocacy or Reportage?

Of course it is rarely put that way. However, one indication is the bias in reception I have mentioned. The Whorfian study about a people’s heightened sensitivity to the feel of materials or shades of a color is received as one more brick in the wall; the one using the same approach to suggest a deficiency in the Chinese is diligently argued away. In the humanities, the same teacher who enthusiastically introduces undergrads to Whorf’s idea as worth investigating may well have, in the same course, told students that it is mistaken to associate Black English’s elisions of standard English grammar—such as often not using the be verb or third-person singular -s—with thought patterns. No teacher is being willfully obfuscatory here; I doubt any of them even have occasion to consider this particular contradiction. Yet it is instructive: the basic commitment is advocacy, not just investigation.

The advocational motivation is similarly clear not only in exchanges with people familiar with the Whorfian idea, but throughout the references to Whorfianism in journalistic and literary sources. Journalist Mark Abley listens to a Mohawk speaker talking about the word ka’nikonriio “righteousness.” The speaker says, “You have different words. Something that is nice. Something coming very close to—sometimes used as a word for—law. The fact of ka’nikonriio is also ‘beautiful.’ Or ‘good.’ So goodness and the law are the same.” Abley muses, “I had the impression that a three-hour philosophy seminar had just been compressed into a couple of minutes.” Yet our own righteoushas virtually the same spread of connotations, and one wonders whether Abley would see that as useful to discuss in a class about Kant and Hegel. Abley’s aim here is not to show that language influences thought, but something more specific—that Mohawks have abstract thought just as English speakers do.

Journalist Jack Hitt describes an indigenous language of Chile called Kawesqar. It has several past tenses, including one that distinguishes the mythological from the real. Cool—but then Hitt surmises that Kawesqar barely marks the future because as former nomads, they apparently had lived largely in the moment and hadn’t needed to think much about the future. The future tense seems to really get people’s creative juices going when it comes to Whorfianism: recall Keith Chen treating it as discouraging—not encouraging—thrift, while literary critic Edmund Wilson thought Russian’s ambiguous future marking was why Russians seemed never to be on time! Hitt’s contribution here, just as creative, is more than a matter of showing a link between language and thought. The idea of a people too immersed in the moment to concern themselves with an abstract and uncontrollable later-on is romantic, a direct descendant of Whorf’s depiction of the Hopi. Hitt’s message is “These people make sense.” He is clear on this: “Every language has its unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews.”

Examples continue, such as K. David Harrison’s idea that languages are testaments to ingenuity. Or, Daniel Everett’s work on Pirahã is founded on an argument that particularities of their language, of which the numberlessness is but one, demonstrate a close evolutionary adaptation to their environment, analogous to physical ones. These people are not savages—they make sense.

In general, anyone familiar with the culture of academic social science will recognize a highly prevalent indignation at the notion of anyone implying that language and culture can be separated—a strain of thought that even motivated my third chapter. And of course even to those in the bleachers on such things, it may seem obvious that language and culture are related. However, one might ask: Why indignation, specifically, at the possibility that someone denies it?

Imagine someone denying that hydrogen and oxygen are the components of water—it’s tough to envision the response being along the pearl-clutching lines of “How dare he!” Clearly there is something extra that conditions this subjective kind of response about language and culture, something as emotional as intellectual. Namely, the interest is less in showing that language is related to what a people are like, than in showing that language is related to why a people should be liked.

That is, we are to value not just how languages demonstrate a people’s culture, but how their cultures are legitimate and sophisticated. Naturally, then, to people of the persuasion in question, the very prospect of dissociating language from what is good about people strikes them not only as mistaken, but as dismissive, irritating, offensive.

And one might well ask what is wrong with seeking to illuminate the good in as many people on earth as possible. It’s positive, tolerant, enlightened—wouldn’t it be behind the curve to resist such a thing? Abley and Hitt, for instance, have been committed to keeping obscure languages from going extinct. K. David Harrison seeks to keep indigenous cultures alive. Surely celebrating their speakers is relevant to that mission. They and countless others have the best of intentions.

I suggest, nevertheless, that the conventional embrace of Whorfianism, with its particular brand of elevating the particular over the universal, takes good intentions in directions none could favor. There are three goals Whorfianism seeks that are, unwittingly, subverted amid its typical treatments in public discussion.

Problem One—Honesty

Are Worldviews Always Noble?

The literature on the worldviews that languages create elides that if the analysis is correct, there are some distinctly unsavory aspects of the worldviews in question. To fashion an idea that a language can make you feel more or see more requires that one also accept that a language can also make you, for example, more racist or sexist.

Note that I did not write that “language” in general can be racist or sexist, something obvious to all. In any language one can produce sentences that have racist or sexist meaning. Deciding how to approach that is a subject separate from that of whether a given language in itself has a racist or sexist substrate—and some do.

Many are well aware that Romance and Germanic languages familiar to us are among them. We are taught that while in the singular, English distinguishes he from she, in the plural they is to be understood as referring to both genders. However, experiments have shown that as we might expect, the default tendency is to associate supposedly gender-neutral pronouns with men. The naked sexism built into the very grammar of such languages is clearer in languages like French, in which there actually is a third-person plural pronoun referring to women, elles, but when referring to both genders, the male ils is used, which is even the very word for he pluralized, as if to really rub it in. Imagine if in English one said of a group composed of men and women as “He-s are going upstairs shortly.” (Yes, graphically he is contained within the word they as the letters h and e, but only accidentally; the h comes for free with the t to indicate the th sound.)

The problem is that this kind of casual sexism is built into languages around the world, as a sadly strong tendency among human groups. It gets even more immediate. The Native American language Koasati is very much of the kind that is full to bursting with fine-grained grammatical distinctions that would lend themselves to speculations as to whether a Koasati is more attuned to, basically, life as we know it. However, among those distinctions is one between whether one is a man speaking or a woman. Men speak with an extra suffix. If a woman says, “He’s lifting it” she says lakáw, but if a man says it, it’s lakáws. “You are saying”—for a woman, ísk, for a man, ísks. This distinction runs throughout the verbal system. In the language of India Kũrux, there are special endings for women talking to women, as opposed to the “normal” ones for men talking to men—or women!

Languages can also be what Westerners would term racist. The Native American language Yuchi, apart from all of its splendiferous busy-ness, has special pronouns to refer to Yuchis, as opposed to the other set used for everybody else. There is perhaps a tendency to see this as a kind of salutary self-regard in a small group like this, but then we would likely see it as quite different if, say, German or Chinese worked that way.

To these things, a tempting reaction is to doubt that these features condition a “worldview.” But short of a metric that justifies fencing off sexism and racism from other aspects of a worldview, one is required to classify the other bells and whistles in a language as equally unrelated to how its speakers see the world.

There is some support for that position, in fact. There do exist languages in which the feminine, rather than the masculine, is the default. In them, more words are feminine than masculine, a new word created or brought into the language is spontaneously marked feminine, and/or when there are males and females present, it’s the feminine pronoun that is used. For one, they are the exceptions that prove the rule, very rare—as it happens, the Amazonian Jarawara we keep hearing about in this book, and sister societies to theirs, are examples.

Second, however, we search in vain for evidence that these societies cherish women in an instructive way. Rather, the treatment of women in such societies seems almost counterintuitively incommensurate with a grammar that gives preference to the feminine gender. Among one of these groups, the Banawá, when a girl menstruates for the first time she is confined to a hut for months, only allowed out for excretion and bathing, in which case a basket is woven tightly around her head without even eye slits; when she is released, after an extended celebration she is beaten on the back until bloody.

Most certainly in this case, language is not creating a worldview in any way we would recognize. Popular Whorfianism would rather not dwell on such a thing—which could shed light on the broader Whorfian approach to other things a language supposedly makes its speakers meaningfully sensitized to.

Problem Two—Respect

Through the Microscope

Whorfianism, in the guise the public is encouraged to embrace, is condescension.

That’s the last thing intended, and many promulgators would consider themselves seeking to make us simply see obscure peoples as Westerners’ equals. They cherish diversity and want to spread the word. However, the idea that language is interesting because it shows how diverse we are as souls is neither as inevitable a perspective as it seems, nor as automatically benevolent.

This is easy to see from Whorfianism’s earlier place in intellectual culture. Let us recall dear old Prussian Heinrich von Treitschke, with his “differences of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world.” One does not imagine the most charitable view of languages beyond those spoken in geopolitically dominant nations, and indeed, von Treitschke’s terms for the less fortunate peoples of the world was “barbarians,” among whom were included not only obscure Third Worlders but groups close to home such as Lithuanians. In von Treitschke’s Germanophone world not long before, even as erudite a philosopher-linguist as Wilhelm von Humboldt treated Chinese, with its lack of gender and conjugation endings, as representing an earlier “stage” of language than European ones, unsuitable to the highest degrees of reasoning and progress. The title of one of his signature works says it all: “The Diversity of Human Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind.” The distance is short between this and the modern quest to show languages as “worldviews”—not for nothing is von Humboldt even classified by some as the true father of Whorfianism.

We consider ourselves blissfully beyond this kind of thinking. For one, modern Whorfians do not situate languages on a scale of sophistication the way the old-timers did, and such a quest is certainly the last thing on the minds of Whorfians’ supporters even beyond academia.

Or is it? Von Humboldt seems so antique in his interest in “the mental development of mankind” (perhaps even more so in the original: die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlects). However, even today, diversity is properly too general a term for how Whorfianism is argued for. Aspects of the diversity that would strike us as unpleasant are carefully pruned out of the picture, such as the sexism and racism aforementioned, or the possibility that a language makes you less sensitive to the hypothetical (Chinese), or things that significantly never come up for discussion, such as languages that collapse eat and drink into a word meaning consume. Rather, the dominant impulse of popular Whorfianism is to show ways in which other groups are Westerners’ superiors: more aware of kinds of knowing, less caught up in obsessing about the future, more aware of their topography, more sensitive to sources of information.

The English speaker just talks; the Mohawk speaks philosophy lessons. The indigenous language is a testament to creativity—but those who would espouse that view are much less likely to write about English that way. To them, the doughty, donnish tradition of singing English as a “mighty” language is distant, old-fashioned, and redolent of imperialism. Under that perspective, slang does qualify as “creative”—but the approval stems from slang’s flouting the musty tropes of the standard English hegemon. The Aboriginal Australian languages will be said to have no word for time, reflecting their conception that progress does not happen and that humans’ job is to maintain life as it was at the Creation—and that hence, such people could never have driven the world to its global warming and other ecological problems.

For whatever it’s worth, plenty of Australian languages have had a word for time, but that one and the others suffice to make a case—that would be supported by endless other statements by people on the relationship of language and culture—that there is more afoot than a celebration of diversity. In the quest to dissuade the public from cultural myopia, this kind of thinking has veered into exotification. The starting point is, without a doubt, I respect that you are not like me. However, in a sociocultural context in which that respect is processed as intellectually and morally enlightened, inevitably to harbor that respect comes to be associated with what it is to do right and to be right as a person. An ideological mission creep thus sets in: respect will magnify into something more active and passionate. The new watch cry becomes:

I like that you are not like me.

or alternately:

What I like about you is that you are not like me.

That watch cry signifies:

What’s good about you is that you are not like me.

Note, however, the object of that encomium has little reason to feel genuinely praised. His being not like a Westerner is neither what he feels as his personhood or self-worth nor what we should consider it to be, either explicitly or implicitly. Ultimately, our characterization of indigenous people in this fashion is more for our own benefit than theirs. This is visible in that the person who elevates cherishing the values and folkways of others as more “real” than their own typically has no such expectations of the people in question.

The idea is that the “exotic,” if he sees his people as superior to or more fundamental than us, is on the right track—kudos to him for understanding that we are the weirdos, the unenlightened, the uncool. But that is something we value for its validation of us, which we walk away with without considering that we are granting him a perspective we consider backward in ourselves. To wit, we celebrate him for being backward. That is no compliment.

Quite simply, we might imagine being on the other end of the microscope. A group of people observes what we do—including how we talk—and is entranced by the very fact of our differences from them, even elevating them as in some way more “genuine” than their own. Perhaps the narrative trope of our being observed and visited by extraterrestrials advanced far beyond us technologically is a useful comparison, with the unaccustomed sensation of smallness and trivialization a reader experiences. Take the analogy further and imagine the extraterrestrials praising how “real” we are for still living on the resources of our planet rather than channeling energy from some interplanetary source, and so on.

To scorn diversity is antithetical to egalitarianism. However, to fetishize it, while perhaps seeming progressive, can be equally elitist. Do we celebrate people as interesting in studied ways—“Wow, you really feel the length and thinness of sticks!”; “Gee, you’re really hip to the difference between whether you saw something or only heard it!”—ultimately because we can’t quite feel that they are our equals just in being human?

Problem Three—Accuracy

What Is Enlightenment?

Popular Whorfianism—we need a delineating term—just isn’t true. Academic Neo-Whorfianism is—make no mistake. But how it is commonly interpreted beyond the laboratory just isn’t real.

Language does not shape thought in the way that one might reasonably suppose, nor do cultural patterns shape the way language is structured in the way that one might reasonably suppose. Rather, the way a language is structured is a fortuitously ingrown capacity. It is a conglomeration of densely interacting subsystems, wielded at great speed below the level of consciousness, endlessly morphing into new sounds and structures due to wear and tear and accreted misinterpretations, such that one day what was once Latin is now French and Portuguese.

This conception must not be equated with the Chomskyan idea that a “language organ” exists distinct from the rest of cognition. All indications are that language is a component of thinking, and as such, this thing called language, engulfed in a perceiving brain, is ever tossing out feelers into various areas of conception—randomly, as there are so very many things a language might end up marking explicitly and no one could ever mark all of them—a dazzling thousands of facets of being human.

However, the perception capacity itself is the same regardless of the language. To be sure, a feeler, hooked into a certain patch of perception, enhances the speaker’s sensitivity to the relevant phenomenon, and this book in no way denies the solid evidence for that. Yet the experiments in question have shown us that the enhancement qualifies as a passing flicker, that only painstaking experiment can reveal, in no way creating a different way of seeing the worldalong the lines that a von Humboldt, von Treitschke, or anyone else would propose.

As such, culture—the sum of how a people think—cannot permeate the glutinous nucleus that is how a language works. Note, I write how a language works, not just “language,” which, as I have shown, is certainly affected by culture in various ways. Our interest—because it is Whorfianism’s—is not just “language” writ large, but the fortuitous conglomeration that is the inner workings of an individual language—its grammar, how it happens to render last week, the particularities that make it tough to pick up by adults. Culture can affect how that language is used and make it label certain things that the culture values most in a fashion none would consider mysterious. However, culture cannot affect anything as integral to the language as how it is built in its details. A language’s structure, and what random aspects of reality it happens to cover or not cover, do not correlate meaningfully with culture.

Yes: language structure does not correlate meaningfully with culture. You don’t need to take my word for it. Just as Edward Sapir told us almost a century ago, “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.” The vocabulary is awkward today, but Sapir meant that the Macedonian language, related to Russian, is bristling with cases and conjugations just like Ancient Greek, while Chinese is built like various small languages spoken in South and Southeast Asia. Culture and language structure—that is, thought and language structure—do not match. That is a message perhaps unexpected from one of the figures who inspired Whorf, but there it is. This is what we have seen in this book.

In the light of it, how comfortable can we be with celebrating small languages’ vocabularies as “embodying a cultural perspective”? After all, it is so clear that the vocabularies of our own languages are, well, just words. Spanish has separate words for a corner depending on whether it’s outside (you go around the esquina) or inside (you stand in the rincón). English has the same word for both, but few consider that to embody a “geometry lesson”—English just happens to cut up reality in a randomly different way than Spanish. French doesn’t have a word for stick out in the sense of something being improperly placed within an otherwise tidy row of objects but imagine French scientists deciding that this means that English’s stick out means that we are culturally more attuned to things protruding than they are! The French just happen to express the concept as a matter of something not having been done right, or something “going beyond” (dépasser); they get the meaning across even if they don’t have a word that happens to incorporate that “sticking” nuance.

No language’s words can mark every single nuance of living, and thus every language happens to divide conception up differently. The differences are neat, but the idea that they indicate different takes on life is valid only to the extent that we can accept it about languages close to home. If despite their language Swedes wipe and the French can see things sticking out, then the whole picture we are often given about indigenous vocabularies falls apart.


The scholar who studies the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas readily allows that as brilliant a thinker as he was, much of what he wrote about cannot much occupy the modern mind, such as his endless disquisitions on the Aristotelian difference between the essential and the accidental properties of objects, with the latter kind carefully taxonomized, all in the service of parsing theological questions revolving around transubstantiation and the Eucharist. One can put oneself into Saint Thomas Aquinas’s mind and understand the urgency such issues had to him in the thirteenth century, while still feeling that this stage of philosophical investigation was couched in certain assumptions and preoccupations that modern philosophy, amid the progress of intellectual history, has surpassed in terms of empiricism.

Similarly we can thoroughly understand why even the most scientific of minds once believed in spontaneous generation. It certainly looked as if life could spring from putrid matter, and only with microscopes and rigorously wielded deductive tools could humans perceive microorganisms.

The study of language has had similar phases, which, in retrospect, seem understandable but primordial. If you only know of languages that have a lot of endings that have to be learned via busy-looking tables, it is natural to think a language that lacks these is less sophisticated, as Wilhelm von Humboldt did. Only with extended study of languages like Chinese does it become clear that endings are hardly the only way that a language can be difficult (as I try to show in my book What Language Is), and even today the layman is given to saying that languages like Chinese “don’t have grammar.”

Equally germane here would be the quaint von Treitschkes of yore with their idea that languages represent how people think. The reader likely can see where I’m going: the idea that each language makes its speakers think differently—even in a “good” way—from speakers of others is perhaps not as progressive as it appears. One clue is in the very fragility immediately evident in the idea that all of the differences will be good, or even “cool.” We have seen the problem, and must add that the school of thought is typically based on a tiny base of comparison—two to four languages out of six thousand—such that one is forced into a comparison similar to blind men describing an elephant.

One could say, then, that popular Whorfianism, for all of its sincerely beneficent intentions, is an immature position, a stage along the pathway toward treating language as what it actually is, a stage in which we are deeply preoccupied by concerns local to our moment, which, in their visceral pull, discourage attention to the larger picture. The analogy with Saint Thomas Aquinas’s writings could continue, in that just as religious commitments diverted him from what modern philosophers would consider a purely empirical approach, the modern popular Whorfian enthusiasm is rooted in what could be termed a religious impulse as well, that is, the modern thinking person’s allegiance to valuing, fostering, and defending diversity rather than disparaging it.

That is, a “religion” that has vastly improved human societies in inestimable ways. However, as I have argued, when it comes to how a given language works, this religion all but inevitably drifts into an essentialism antithetical to anything most would see as looking ahead, pardoning the lesser, and celebrating the ordinary, all in the name of a validation that its object would barely recognize.

Popular Whorfianism is hardly the only symptom of a slip between folk consciousness and the empirical when it comes to language. Prescriptivism—the idea that there are “bad” grammatical forms, mistaken in some scientifically unexceptionable way—is another. One aspect of being a linguist is an eternal crusade against the folk notion that it is “broken” to say Billy and me went to the store; Each student can hand in their paper; or There were less books there than I thought. The idea that such locutions are “wrong,” while so widespread and thus so seemingly plausible, is rooted in fiats laid down centuries ago by men learned but of limited linguistic horizons, thinking that English should pattern like Latin, or equating linguistic logic with mathematical logic regardless of whether linguistic logic accomplishes its goal of conveying meaning accurately. The linguist awaits the day when the general public will understand that the prescriptivism we are raised on is based on illusory commandments that have no scientific basis.

Many adherents of popular Whorfianism are of one mind with linguists on that, but miss that the general public is equally misled in thinking that if Western European languages have different words for knowing depending on whether it’s factual (French savoir, German wissen) or acquaintance (French connaître, German kennen), then it means speakers of those languages are keener about what it is to know than English speakers are. Or, they miss that the general public is ill served to be taught that indigenous groups that have to use a suffix to say where they got their information from are keener on what it is to know their environment than other people are. The very idea is so cool, but in the grand scheme of things just doesn’t hold up. Recall—do we really think that Africans, who rarely have such suffixes, don’t need to be alert to nuances of their environment?

Is our perspective on language to progress beyond its current stage? Is the public’s enlightenment on language to increase via the teachings of our writerly class in the way that Immanuel Kant hoped thought would progress in his classic piece, “What Is Enlightenment?” If so, here is the kind of siren call we must reconsider.

English, as it happens, has a get fetish. Asked what get means, we most readily say that it means to acquire. But the word has seeped throughout the language far beyond that. To understand something is to get it. To overcome something by force is to get it—I’m going to get you. To enter into some state is to get that way. You get someone to do something. You get to go to the ball. You even get fired, get hurt.

The possibility beckons to treat this as evidence of something about being an English speaker. An academic so inclined might phrase it that these meanings of get suggest a revealing ethnosemantic reality, in which English speakers express a fundamental cultural orientation via their particular usage of what seems, on the surface, an unremarkable little word.

Linguist Anna Wierzbicka, as it happens, actually has had an idea of this kind. She points out that sentences like She got him to do it, She got mad, and She got herself kicked out all carry an implication that someone has undergone something without having intended to. She sees this as a result of democracy of all things, under which “the new managerial type of society” needed “an increased scale of interpersonal causations,” under which a language might distinguish nuances such as whether or not something was caused with the intent of the person undergoing the causing. She also supposes that democracy’s forging of a cultural focus on personal autonomy—or its suppression—further encouraged the florescence of these kinds of get constructions.

In arguments such as these, Wierzbicka is often thought to have shown, without falling for the cartoonier renditions of Whorfianism, that even English can teach us how language reflects culture. She deserves credit for venturing to do that, in contrast to the more usual disinterest I pointed to in chapter 4 in how our own familiar English “shapes thought.” But as insightful as she often is, her conclusions are based largely on a few languages spoken in Europe. Surely we need a bigger sample to determine whether English’s get fetish has to do with being “Anglo-Saxon” or even “Anglo,” as she often puts it, as opposed to simple chance.

There are, as it happens, dozens of languages in Southeast Asia spoken by small, indigenous groups, living according to agrarian traditions tracing back millennia, in which get has slipped beyond its borders and permeated the languages similarly to the way it has in English. In tiny languages like Muong, Alak, Brao, and Zhuang, one not only gets a present from someone. When one must go home, one “gets” home; if you can dance, you “get” dance; if you are a slow walker, then one would say that you are someone who “gets” walking slow; if you laugh so hard your sides ache, then your laugh “gets” your sides aching. Notably, most of these meanings entail someone undergoing something unexpectedly or unwillingly, just as the English get constructions do.

And then, this get proliferation is also rife in the “star” languages of the area like Thai, Vietnamese, and Lao, which have entirely different histories from the obscure ones. Knowing only about the get fetish in well-known languages like Thai, we might suppose that the commercial and cultural dominance of these people had something to do with their enshrinement of the word for acquire, along the lines of what supposedly happened in England. Yet the obscure languages off in the hills, also as get-crazy as English, sit as a block on making any kind of Whorfian sense of the matter.

The only coherent account is that all of these languages got the way they are by chance. They extended a feeler into get-ness, rather than evidentiality, or having different words for dark blue and light blue, or different words for eating depending on what’s in your mouth. You never know where in the soup a bubble may come up—and ladies and gentleman, that’s all.

Similarly, when journalist Amy Wilentz insightfully describes how the unfortunate history of Haiti has necessitated a tradition of artful dissimulation in the local culture, but then treats Haitian Creole’s using the same word for he, she, and it and the same word for we and you all as its linguistic symptom, it is a reasonable supposition. However, it also isn’t true: the correlation is an accident.

Chinese and Finnish have all-purpose he, she, it pronouns despite their nations’ pasts and presents being so different from Haiti’s. Meanwhile many locales as historically troubled as Haiti have pronouns that slice up reality even more finely than English’s do, such as many languages of the South Seas area that have different words for me and you, me and you and him, and me and you and them, where English just has we.

And as to the same pronoun for we and you all, Haitian gets that from the African language spoken by many of its creators three hundred years ago. There is no anthropological analysis of those people, the Fon of Benin, as having a culture based on disguise and indirection—they are an indigenous culture tracing back several millennia, which birthed its fuzzy pronouns unconnected to the exigencies of plantation slavery. Their pronouns for we and you all just happened to end up the same—just as in merrie Old England for a while, as we saw in the previous chapter, for a while he and they were the same word. No one thinks that had anything to do with British peasants tossing up crafty linguistic smoke screens; it just happened because that’s what languages fall into now and then as sounds wear away and lead to homonyms. Just homonyms—all languages have them, and if English’s homonymy between May and may just “is,” then the burden is upon Whorfians to explain why the homonymy between Haitian’s nou “we” and nou “y’all” is “cultural.”

Haitian’s pronouns have nothing to do with the culture of Haitians. It only seems so with the camera pulled in to view only Haitian Creole and a few languages we happen to know best. Wilentz, to be sure, cannot be faulted for not knowing this. She is a top-rate journalist with no pretenses of being a linguist and has simply taken in the Whorfian current that educated people in our times do. Only linguists have any reason to be familiar with language as it patterns worldwide. If a people are hanging garlic in a doorway to ward off colds, it is the medical establishment’s fault for not disseminating the truth. In the same way, popular Whorfian insights like Wilentz’s are not her fault.

It is linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists who are responsible for enlightening the public that language does not track with culture the way we might expect it to. If empiricism remains eternally our goal, it is relevant that language can remain an inspiring thing without the distortions of popular Whorfianism. We can, retaining a quest for enlightenment, move ahead.

The Wonders of Sameness

The truth is that language dances only ever so lightly on thought. One proof of this is how terminology’s meanings quickly bend according to thought patterns. University of California linguist George Lakoff, for example, has notoriously suggested that the Democratic Party could attract more voters by altering the labels they apply to things of political import, such as calling income taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public-protection attorneys.” Lakoff’s idea has seemed less urgent since the Barack Obama phenomenon created a Democratic ascendance on its own, but the idea could have had at best a temporary impact. Terminology doesn’t shape thought, it follows it.

Consider terms such as affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words composing it mean: “affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was artful and gracious, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy. Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Welfare is similar. The contrast between the core meaning of the word and its modern political associations is instructive, in that one can easily imagine a Lakoff in the 1930s proposing exactly the word welfare as a label for government assistance. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of negative associations. Similarly, if an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those regularly accrete to any new terms applied. This happened quickly to urgently intended terms such as male chauvinist and women’s liberation, as well as special education.

Changing the terms can play some initial role in moving opinion, rather like God getting the globe spinning under the deist philosophy. But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics. Mere terms require constant renewal as opponents quickly “see through” the artful intentions of the latest ones coined and cover up the old label with the new one, applying it to the attitudes they have always had. Only in an unimaginably totalitarian context that so limited the information available to citizens that constructive thought and imagination were near impossibilities could language drive culture in a lasting way. This is why Orwell and 1984, expected references at this point in my discussion, are not truly relevant here. In the real world, language talks about the culture; it cannot create it.

Rather than each revealing a different take on thinking, languages—beyond having names for cultural tokens—are variations on the same take on thinking: the human one. This may sound unexciting, but homogeneity can be more interesting than it sounds. Its very prevalence among humans is as much a lesson, in terms of the counterintuitive, as diversity.

Anthropologist Donald Brown’s catalog of human universals is invaluable here. It will surprise few that all humans have art or use tools. However, many of the things that have been found in all human groups worldwide are not what one would expect, and make one feel part of a species defined by much more than physiognomy and the infant’s instinct to cry. For example, in all groups there is an equivalent to marriage; nowhere do people engage solely in informal sexual arrangements. All humans have a particular fear of snakes. All groups have a kind of music associated with children and child care. There is no human group that does not indulge occasionally in some kind of stimulant or intoxicant. The facial expressions a woman makes when flirting are the same the world over. To consider excretion and sex private acts is not solely a Western “hangup,” but is found among all human beings anywhere. Linguistically, some languages say “not good” for bad, “not wide” for narrow, and so on, but none have negative terms as the default for basic concepts like these: no language has “not bad” for good, “not narrow” for wide.

Another example is one of my favorites. The speakers of the creole language Saramaccan in the Surinamese rain forest that I mentioned previously create, as all humans do, art. Collectors have valued their baskets, textiles, and woodcarvings, thinking of them as testaments to age-old indigenous tradition. We imagine the Saramaka passing the same artistic patterns down one generation after another, such that today’s carver is carrying on the tradition of his distant ancestors in seventeenth-century Surinam, when the society formed.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Surinam’s artists, while thoroughly immersed in respect for their ancestors, are no more interested in cranking out the same patterns year after year than anyone else. Among them, just as with any sculptor in Paris or Los Angeles, art changes throughout a lifetime and over generations. To them, a basket weaved a hundred years ago is instantly identifiable as old-fashioned, and not something any weaver would make today.

A Surinam artist told an anthropologist, after mentioning the constant novelty in the West,

Well, friend, it’s exactly the same with our woodcarving! My uncle’s generation only knew how to make those big, crude designs—the one we call “owl’s eyes” and “jaguar’s eyes”—but since then men have never stopped making improvements. Almost every year there’s something new, something better. Right up to today.

The men are also rather irritated by Western collectors’ notion that their work must have quaint or exotic “meanings” about things like fertility or eternal dualities. To them, their artworks are … art, fashioned the way it is out of the basic human creative impulse.

Things like Brown’s universals and Surinamese art show us, then, that diversity is not the only way that humans can be interesting. Surely part of embracing diversity is understanding the extent of homogeneity in which it occurs.

Then Isn’t Language Boring?

Language demonstrates this homogeneity quite vibrantly. Some may find this proposition less enticing, less romantic, less interesting than the Whorfian one. In fact, part of what detours us into the idea that each language is a different worldview is likely that otherwise, an element of the romantic is lost.

For example: one hears often that “When I speak (language X), I’m a different person!” Yet it isn’t an accident that people who say this almost always learned that language as adults. The reason they are “different” in the second language is that they don’t speak it natively! It follows naturally that if you probe a bit and ask the person to describe how they are different in the second language, they usually say they aren’t as witty or are more blunt—that is, just what one expects from someone who is fluent but not native.

Yet there is wonder in how languages are different nevertheless—in how very differently languages express the same basic cognitive process called humanity. It cannot be denied that some languages pack more observation into the typical sentence than others: the difference between what a typical Native American language requires you to say and what a typical Mandarin Chinese sentence does is obvious. However, in any language one can, if necessary, say anything, and it is miraculous to observe how variantly languages accomplish this possibility.

For example, here is an English sentence:

Should we make them help to take it away?

Now, in a language called Lahu, spoken in villages in southern China and nearby countries, the way you would put this is:

We help take go send give correct yes?

Lahu, like Chinese, is one of those languages without endings, of the kind one easily supposes therefore to not have “grammar.” In Lahu we see (or hear) just short words strung together like beads: Ŋàh Image ga yù qay c Image pî cImage νe lâ?

It seems especially unlike anything we know as grammar that so much of the Lahu sentence is verbs just run together like train cars: help-take-go-send-give-correct—how in the world does that mean “should help them to take it away”?

But it does, very precisely. Where English uses “little words” like articles and prepositions, Lahu instead makes rich use of verbs in secondary meanings. “Go” means “away.” “Send” means “make” as in putting them forth for a purpose—you can feel how send them to could come to mean make them to just as in English, see can be used in the sentence See that they take it away. “Give” indicates that the sending—that is, the making—is directed toward someone, and as an indication of how languages can hide their grammar, this word for give is used only in the third person and therefore also, “for free,” signifies to a Lahu that we are making them, rather than me or you. That is, this sentence does have an indication of them—just not where we would ever know to look. “Correct,” extended in a similar way as send to make, means “should.”

Lahu is full of surprises. The final “yes” is not a random affectation, and my translation is even loose—really, it’s a word you must append to indicate that something is a question: more grammar, directly equivalent to English’s inverting we and should to indicate the same thing (Should we …?). And finally, in the translation I left out notoriously untranslatable little ve that comes after all of the verbs. Its function is so elusive that the world’s expert on the language, my erstwhile colleague Jim Matisoff, wrote an article on its complexities perfectly titled “Oy, ve!” But, basically, in Lahu putting forth a question involves rendering it all as a kind of gerund, rather like an Israeli I once knew who, new to English, once offered cigarettes to friends asking, “Smoking?” instead of “Want to smoke?” In Lahu, the sentence in question comes out as roughly, “Us being obliged to make them help take it away, hmm?” Now, there’s some grammar, as arbitrary as the fact that in English should is irregular.

Lahu, then, is interesting in how it expresses the same thoughts as English does, but with such vastly different machinery. If Lahu were endangered, which luckily it is not at present, the fact that it is so awesome simply in itself would be justification for at least documenting what it is.

Yet more likely in our modern zeitgeist is a claim that Lahu is valuable as a window on a way of seeing the world—that it embodies a worldview from the way its sentences work. Here, we are back to the kinds of things we have seen in this book: Lahu has the material classifiers like Chinese and Japanese, it has an evidential marker or two, and so forth. Yet at the end of the day, a notion that Lahu grammar shapes a way of thinking would lead us down blind alleys familiar to the reader by now. We need not even linger on the ultimately patronizing idea that Lahu’s stringing verbs together rather than using prepositions and adverbs means that its speakers are more “active,” “vivid,” or “direct” than English speakers. Or, Lahu doesn’t really mark past tense: so if not marking the future means you save more money, then maybe the Lahu attend more to the past than other people? Or, just as Japanese uses the same classifier for pencils, beer, and phone calls, Lahu uses the same one for months and testicles—it’d be interesting figuring out what that might say about the Lahu as a people.

And so it would go. Lahu grammar is a marvelously intricate system in its own right. Is part of what delineates a culture the fact of having a language unique to it? Certainly. However, from that, it does not follow that the language is the culture couched as sentence patterns and word groupings. In its relationship to the essence and particularities of a culture, how a language works is analogous to a tartan.

What Is Forward?

There are those for whom a statement like that just will not do. They may marvel that someone who has written with such enthusiasm about the variety among the world’s languages in books such as The Power of Babel and What Language Is could deny the intimate relationship between language and culture.

However, this book is perfectly compatible with those. I deny not that language and culture are linked. I question a particular kind of linkage between the two, in which grammatical features and vocabulary configurations no native speaker would consider at all remarkable purportedly condition a way of processing life. To question that idea is neither to toss one’s hat in with the Chomskyans reducing language to a spare little clot of features titled the “Language Acquisition Device” nor to disrespect the massive body of work on linguistic anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and the philosophy of language.

There are other ways in which the argument I have presented may lend itself to misinterpretation, especially in light of previous objections to Whorfianism and the defenses its adherents are accustomed to bringing up. For example, the traditional insistence that no one has claimed that language absolutely determines thought is not useful here. That kind of claim is a straw-man argument that almost no one has made, so evidently false that engaging it would serve little purpose. In my introduction, I acknowledge that no Whorfians make such simplistic claims, and instead present a more specific argument: that even the notion of language making people significantly more “likely” to think in certain ways is highly fraught—for example, in the claims it forces us into on Chinese and East Asian languages.

Finally, I have not dismissed academic work showing that the workings of a language can have some effect on thought. Repeatedly I have acknowledged and praised these studies, such that I have tried to enforce a distinction between academic and popular Whorfianism. Therefore: in response to a possible observation that I have not done Whorfian experiments myself, with the implication that if I did so I would find evidence of language’s influence on thought, I agree wholeheartedly! The evidence from the studies is so obvious, in itself, that it would be quite unnecessary for me to go out and repeat their results with other languages. The work has been done.

My interest is in the implications we are taught to draw from the elegant but whispery results in question. Yes, whispery—the psychologist will work with them, but the problem is this “worldview” business promoted to those of us out there in the dark. One may delight in the variety among the world’s languages without basing that delight in an idea that each language’s individual workings create a different lens on life. My argument has been that it is preferable to sidestep that tempting frame of mind. Science does not support it in the way that it is promulgated beyond the ivory tower. It entails a view of other people that should be suspicious to all both within and beyond that ivory tower. Plus it just isn’t necessary. My work, like that of countless others, has been an attempt to show interested people that languages are fascinating in their own right.

We are told that what languages teach us about being human is how different we are. Actually, languages’ lesson for us is more truly progressive—that our differences are variations on being the same. Many would consider that something to celebrate.