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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LOLcat linguistics: I can has language play?

December 8, 2011

Oh hai. Few internet memes have enjoyed the cultural penetration and staying power of LOLcats (examples; home; Wikipedia). Whether they annoy you, amuse you, or please you to the point of purring, there’s no avoiding them online, and they’ve even infiltrated the physical world.

LOLspeak (the language of LOLcats) is too new to have attracted much scholarly research to date. But there is some, and it features in “I can has language play: Construction of Language and Identity in LOLspeak”, a presentation by Jill Vaughan and Lauren Gawne at the Australian Linguistic Society’s annual conference in 2011.

Vaughan and Gawne identify LOLspeak as a form of language play that serves in-group cohesion: if you’re in on the joke, you’re part of the community. They show how a LOLcat simultaneously builds two identities: the ubiquitous cat and the internet-savvy human that gives it its idiosyncratic voice.

This slide, for example, quoting the LOLcat Bible, demonstrates LOLspeak’s eccentric form:

The presentation is at once funny and informative. After briefly explaining the origins and context of LOLspeak, it briskly addresses its phonetics, orthography, lexicon, syntax, and morphology. We see how the surreal and deliberately mangled “cat-world discourses” reveal a playful sophistication and a “high level of metalinguistic awareness”.

See enough LOLcats and you’ll notice themes and sub-memes recur and become recursive. It’s creative but far from anarchic: linguistic norms have emerged but further subversion is always possible, even relished. Apparently some people have argued that LOLspeak is a creole, but “that’s just cos they want to use the phrase kitty pidgin”…

Here’s the video:

[via Superlinguo]

Update:

Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan’s paper ‘I can haz language play: The construction of language and identity in LOLspeak’, published by the Australian Linguistic Society, is now available in PDF form.