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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Anaïs Nin on learning a new language

July 31, 2014

Despite their Whorfian tang I enjoyed these reflections on language learning from Anaïs Nin. They’re from A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin, edited by Evelyn J. Hinz (1975):

Language to me is like the discovery of a new world, really a new state of consciousness. A new word to me was a new sensation. Reading the dictionary, anything at all, can add not only to your knowledge but also to your perceptions.

Do new languages bestow new states of consciousness? The idea that bilingual (and multilingual) people inhabit different personalities in different languages has much anecdotal evidence to support it – many bilinguals report feeling like different people when they speak different tongues.

Researchers who have studied the phenomenon are equivocal about its implications – it probably has far less to do with grammar than with the environments and cultures associated with the languages.

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Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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Anti-anti-Americanismism

September 27, 2012

A recent article on the BBC America website features ’10 Things Americans Say… and What They Really Mean’. It begins with an unpromising generalisation and a gratuitous sideswipe:

When it comes to the spoken word, Americans are a truly baffling bunch. So we’ve decoded their most irritating idioms.

Here’s an example of said ‘decoding’ which, though it may have been intended as humour, seems to me sour and condescending: Read the rest of this entry »


Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are ‘slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time’. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.


A world of fragmented words

October 13, 2011

The Man with a Shattered World (1972) is a short, extraordinary book about a Russian soldier, “Zasetsky”, who at 23 was shot in the head in World War II and spent the rest of his life “in a kind of fog all the time, like a heavy half-sleep”, trying to put his mind and life back together.

He suffered great pain and confusion as a result of his injury. Memory loss was severe, physical coordination and proprioception much impaired. He forgot how to gesture to a nurse for help, how to speak with doctors, how to kiss his family when he finally got home. Vision and movement were gravely problematic; thought was torturous.

In spite of these daunting difficulties, he taught himself to read and write again, and wrote a journal of his experience that grew to 3000 pages painstakingly written (and rewritten) over 25 years. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria adapted it for the aforenamed book, adding context to extracts from his patient’s notebooks.

A passage from Luria:

Intricate turns of speech that are so routine to us that we fail to notice their complexity are, in fact, codes that have taken centuries to develop. We readily employ them, because we have mastered linguistic patterns – our most basic means of communication. . . .

The man who wrote this journal no longer had the capacity for such an instantaneous grasp of intricate patterns (whether of spatial or linguistic relationships). The damage to his cerebral cortex had affected precisely those parts of the brain that enable one to evaluate what he has seen (as neurologists would say, to ‘simultaneously synthesize separate parts into a complete whole’).

All Zasetsky’s vision to the right of centre was gone; on the left were large gaps. This, coupled with aphasia and other cognitive disabilities, made reading intensely difficult. He was horrified to discover that he couldn’t understand the sign on a bathroom door, and that the text of a newspaper looked like gibberish.

But he made progress:

When I begin to read a word, even a word like golovokruzheniye [dizziness], and look at the letter k, the upper right point, I only see the letters on the left (v–o). I can’t see anything on the right of the letter k or around it. To the left of it I can see the two letters v and o but nothing further to the left. If someone were to trace the letters further to the left with a pencil, I’d see where the movement of the pencil began, but not the letters.

Writing too was onerous. It was easier for him to write automatically, so he learned to do this and would then read over, letter by letter, what he had written to see if it made sense and to work out what came next.

Sometimes he would strain over a page for a week or two, trying to find the right words for an idea and remember them long enough to fit them together and arrange them in writing.

I have some peculiar kind of forgetfulness or amnesia with almost any word, or else I’m very slow. I can’t remember a word or, if I can, I don’t know what it means. . . . If I hear the word table I can’t work out what it is right away, what it is related to. I just have a feeling the word is somewhat familiar . . .

Even a short paragraph read aloud to Zasetsky quickly broke into meaningless fragments. Hearing it repeatedly was of little help, because his sense of syntax was lost. It was a generalised problem: he had lost his understanding of what things meant and how they worked, how they fit together and related to one other: the world he experienced was shattered.

Zasetsky was tormented by his brain injury but determined to communicate it as best he could. Narrating his struggle to make sense of things became a full-time occupation – an obsession. The Man with a Shattered World is a very sad tale, but no reader can fail to feel deep admiration for its subject’s dedication to his task, and for his unfaltering humanity.

Here is Oliver Sacks speaking about Luria and the book:


Memory of syntax and semantics

October 2, 2011

Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal describes and evaluates many interesting psycholinguistic experiments, one of which I want to draw attention to here:

a number of psychologists have found that all memory of syntax and vocabulary normally fades very fast indeed, unless subjects are specifically told that they will be asked to recall the sentence. Memory for syntax of any kind is near to chance approximately half a minute after a sentence has been spoken (Sachs 1967). In normal circumstances, it seems, people remember only the gist of what has been said, and they often confuse this with a number of extra beliefs and expectations about the topic under discussion (Fillenbaum 1973).

Jacqueline Strunk Sachs, speaking subsequently (PDF) about her experiment, said it showed that we forget “the specific wording of an utterance . . . within seconds”, though we might retain its meaning for a very long time.

Her 1967 paper (“Recognition memory for syntactic and semantic aspects of connected discourse”) was based on her doctoral dissertation and can be downloaded here.* It’s a short and clear account of a smartly designed study, well worth reading if you’re into this sort of thing and you don’t mind the Chomskyan terminology.

The abstract concludes:

The results suggest that the original form of the sentence is stored only for the short time necessary for comprehension to occur. When a semantic interpretation has been made, the meaning is stored. Thus the memory of the meaning is not dependent on memory of the original form of the sentence.

I imagine this rings true for most people. What say you? Have you noticed the rapid divergence between memory of what is said and memory of exactly how it is said?

* Typo fans will enjoy SpringerLink’s mangled paper title, “Recopition memory”, and the suggestion that some of the data were presented at a meeting held in April, 1066.