The Language Hoax: John McWhorter on linguistic relativity

April 12, 2017

Linguist, professor, and author John McWhorter has featured on Sentence first a few times before, in posts about texting, creoles, dialects, linguistic complexity, and book spine poems. He has written many books and countless articles about language, and has been hosting the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast for the last while.

In the video below, McWhorter talks about the ideas in his recent book The Language Hoax, the hoax being the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic determinism or relativity, depending on how strongly it’s believed to apply.* This is the appealing but mostly unfounded notion that our language shapes the world we experience. There’s a helpful summary of it here, and further discussion in this book review.

The subtitle of McWhorter’s talk, ‘Why the world looks the same in any language’, outlines his position. But he acknowledges there is wiggle room for weak versions of the hypothesis, whereby our perceptions can vary slightly because of our different native languages. It’s a fun and interesting talk, given at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico in 2016. It’s around 50 minutes long, and there’s a lively Q&A to finish.

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The developmental overkill of language

June 1, 2014

In his excellent natural history of language, The Power of Babel, linguist John McWhorter describes dialects – and it’s all dialects – as “developed far beyond the call of duty”. He’s referring to the way languages tend to become structurally and idiosyncratically baroque:

Left to its own devices, a human language will tend to elaborate into overt expression of subdivisions of semantic space that would not even occur to many humans as requiring attention in speech and become riddled with exceptions and rules of thumb and things only learnable by rote. This process tends to achieve its most extreme expression among groups long isolated, but any language that has been spoken for tens of thousands of years exhibits some considerable degree of “developmental overkill.” It is this feature of human language that contributes to why learning other languages as an adult is such a challenge. No language has been goodly enough to remain completely tidy and predictable, no language has not stuck its nose somewhere where it didn’t really need to go, no language classifies objects and concepts according to principles so universally intuitive that any human could pick them up in an afternoon, and in none of them are there classifications indexed to currently perceptible cultural concepts in anything better than a highly approximate manner.

This tendency towards complex over-elaboration manifests inevitably in any language that has been around long enough. The converse is that new languages have relatively little such ornamentation, which emerges only through centuries or millennia of “sound erosions and changes, grammaticalizations, rebracketings, and semantic change”.

Pidgins are simplified languages, largely stripped of unnecessary complication, that arise for utilitarian reasons between groups who lack a common tongue. So when these are “born again” as full-fledged languages, in the form of creoles, the results are comparatively free of overdevelopment – before the engine of encrustation gets going again for subsequent generations.

Book spine poem: a language evolution special

October 24, 2013

Someone once told me it was harder to make a book spine poem, aka bookmash, from non-fiction titles. I don’t know; I hadn’t really thought about it before, and I’m never conscious of it when constructing them.

But it led me to look at my earlier book spine poems and see what pattern emerged. Fiction/non-fiction ratios (in reverse chronological order) are as follows: 5:5, 7:2, 8:2, 4:4, 2:5, 6:2, 2:4, 4:4, 2:4, 2:4, 2:5, 3:2, 3:4, 4:3, 2:1, 0:4, 1:4, 0:3, 2:2, 4:2, 1:2, 4:4, 7:9.

That’s 75 fiction vs. 81 non-fiction. I was surprised that there were more non-fiction, and that the totals ended up so close. Two are exclusively non-fiction but none contain only fiction. (New challenge!)

I don’t usually set out with a theme in mind, but this time I wanted to make one about language/linguistics, which was always going to skew heavily towards non-fiction: 2:7. Non-fiction surges ahead – for now.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey - book spine poem - bookmash - evolution the difference engine

Evolution: the difference engine

Words words words ad infinitum –
The power of Babel,
The languages of the world.
Human speech: the articulate mammal enigma,
Evolution: the difference engine.


Thanks to the authors: Diarmaid Ó Muirithe, Nicholas Ostler, John McWhorter, Kenneth Katzner, Richard Paget, Jean Aitchison, Robert Harris, Carl Zimmer, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; and to artist Nina Katchadourian.

More in the bookmash archive.

The creole continuum

June 4, 2013

The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*

A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.

The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:

They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.

What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.

Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.

* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.

Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

April 23, 2013

Last month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift from straightforward initialism (“laughing out loud”) to pragmatic particle marking empathy and shared experience.*

One of McWhorter’s talks was not online at the time, but it appeared yesterday and is well worth watching if you’re interested in texting as a form of communication:

What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk.

McWhorter discusses the differences between speech and writing and how they bleed into one another, and he demonstrates some of texting’s emerging structures and innovations, for instance slash as a “new information marker”.

He also tackles the myth that texting implies a decline in our linguistic abilities (an argument developed in more detail in David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8). Says McWhorter:

What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills – and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, and it’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today – not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.

Here is “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”:


* My post was since translated into Chinese,  if anyone would like to read it that way.

The Power of Babel: Dialects are all there is

March 19, 2013

In my recent post on the evolution of LOL, I included a video of John McWhorter, who has been studying this feature of language. One of his books, The Power of Babel, finally reached the top of my to-read mountain (more of a range, really), and I recommend it highly.

The Power of Babel is a beautifully written and soundly researched history of language that conveys expertly how language changes and what pressures (internal and external) induce that change. Its focus, refreshingly, is not on English – or on any particular language – while pidgins and creoles get prominent coverage.

We get a strong sense from Babel of how artificial are the boundaries we tend to place around and within languages; better to think of it all as a big stew, or a self-pollinating net, its elements mixing all the time to varying degrees and at varying rates. The fun chapter titles give a rough indication of the book’s contents:

John McWhorter - Power of Babel - chapter titles

McWhorter has a talent for drawing clarity out of complication, leading to such nuggets as: “Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics.” (He makes a long, persuasive case for the truth of this proposition.) And I liked this line on grammar and social acceptability:

Any given language chooses from an infinite array of possible grammatical configurations, on which notions of respectability are arbitrarily superimposed, meaningless to people speaking the language or even dialect next door.

One last excerpt: a fine summary paragraph on the “ineluctable imperatives” that impel language transformation (McWhorter prefers this term to evolution in the context of language change):

Once it hits the ground, a human language must and will change. Because change can proceed in various directions, once a language is spoken by separate populations, it must and will diverge into dialects. Juxtaposed with other languages, human languages must and will mix. Torn down to its bare essentials, if needed as a medium of full communication, a human language must and will rise again as a new one.

For more information on the book’s contents and style, see Angela Bartens’s review at Linguist List.

The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”

March 5, 2013

LOL, the poster child of txtspk and internet lingo, began as a handy abbreviation for laughing out loud (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats.

Some people even say lol offline to indicate amusement without having to go to the trouble of laughing. (I’m sure these people laugh normally, too.) But there’s more to LOL than meets the eye. Anne Curzan writes at Lingua Franca that the meaning of LOL has changed – it often doesn’t mean laughing out loud. You might have noticed this.

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