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Book Review of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter

The theory of linguistic relativity promoting a strong correlation between the humans perception of the world and the spoken language has been widely spread since 1930s in both scientific and public circles. However, recently the theory has provoked criticism and a number of questions challenging the hypothesis. In particular, McWhorter made the primary contribution by rejecting the assumption that the grammar structure of a particular language significantly affects the speaker's perception of the world. According to him, the culture is a crucial factor that strongly affects the way the world is viewed and, therefore, it defines the guidelines on the language usage.

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Reading summary

The book The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language analyzes the theory of linguistic relativity, which promotes the idea of the influence of the structure and complexity of the language on the speakers perceptions of the world. The following hypothesis was presented by Benjamin Whorf; thus, the related ideas and tendencies are generally referred as Whorfianism. The author of the book, McWhorter, fiercely criticizes the theory claiming that it provokes the diminishing of the mental capacities of the speakers of particular languages. At the beginning, he opposes the main argument of Whorf based on the research of Hopis culture, in particular, their perception of time and linguistic means of expressing it. McWhorter argues that it can be used as a relevant example and proof of the hypothesis. According to him, the language diversity is an actual matter, but adopting the theory of linguistic relativity is a wrong way to celebrate the diversity. Besides, the author mostly blames the media and journalists for promoting the simplified ideas, which can be easily misinterpreted by people who lack professional background in linguistics. Thus, they are responsible for spreading the false ideas and challenging public opinion on the scientific linguistic concepts.

The main idea promoted by McWhorter in the book is that language is only a part of the culture, which is the main force that is shaping peoples perceptions. As evidence, he provides the usage of pronouns in different languages to address politeness. While in some languages, like English, the same pronoun can be used in different contexts, in other languages such as German or Russian different pronouns can be used to denote a particular level of politeness. Again, such forms are dictated by socially imposed norms; thus, they characterize the peculiarities of cultures and do not necessarily reveal different perceptions of stratification of society and relationships within it. In fact, the linguistic variety of a particular language is driven by the reality and conditions the speakers live in. Consequently, it reflects the reality, but does not affect it. Thinking-for-speaking proposal refers to an assumption that a speaker organizes his/her thinking in terms of the linguistic categories of the native language. The neo-Whorfian relativism followers slightly modified the notion by claiming that language affects the mode of thinking on the stage of planning and speech processing. However, according to McWhorter, the above-mentioned claim does not support the assertion that language actually influences the worldview. Basically, it has a minor influence that cannot be considered a significant factor. Overall, Neo-Whorfian experiments reveal the differences in the way of speaking different languages. However, the results are not important as they do not demonstrate any dramatic effect a language has on the speakers outlook.

The book also provides a new perspective on the color perception experiments conducted in 2007 and often used by the pro-Whorf hypothesis to prove the influence of language. McWhorter regards the results and interpretation of the experiment controversial and inconclusive. Moreover, recent studies proved that color perception is invariant in the speakers of different languages. There are numerous empirical flaws in the color experiment, since, for example, the experiment conditions were too artificial. Thus, using different linguistic categories from Russian and English to denote the colors does not mean that people perceive the colors differently. Specifically, it does not indicate that Russian speakers are more sensitive to the color perception comparing to other language speakers. Similarly, the reaction time needed for distinguishing the colors cannot be used as a valid objective measure in the experiment.

What is more, McWhorter indicates the sociopolitical negative effects and dangers of the Whorfian theory. The hypothesis based on the idea of linguistic relativism provokes the separation of people according to their languages. As a result, some people are referred as being more complex, while others are expected to have simplistic thinking. Apart from this, the linguistic relativity might provoke the false assumptions about the correlation of language and humans intelligence. Consequently, such assumptions may promote the ideas of superiority of the particular culture over others. In particular, the linguistic relativity emphasizes the difference between the Westerners and non-Westerners, which might lead to the discriminative racial division and related stereotypes. For example, solely basing on the linguistic peculiarities, one can assume that his/her culture has a more expanded worldview compared to English-speakers. Similarly, some linguistic studies claim to reveal the deficiencies of languages, which is inappropriate and irrelevant. Thus, even though the idea of linguistic relativism was originally aimed to celebrate the diversity, it provokes negative effects.

Reading evaluation

Naturally, McWhorter thoroughly discusses the previous views and studies related to the issue of correlation between the language and cognition in order to make a valid counterargument. In particular, he takes into consideration the Whorfianism hypothesis and ideas promoted by Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf presented the theory of linguistic relativity, according to which, different languages, specifically their grammar structures, shape the perception of reality. Since Whorfs ideas about the correlation of language and outlook have been well-spread since 1930s, McWhorter makes a revolutionary statement by presenting his study criticizing Whorfs ideas. He calls his work a manifesto, which is supposed to demolish the previous beliefs about linguistic relativity. This research is primarily an opposition to the book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages written by Deutsher. McWhorter attempts to refute the pro-Whorf ideas of the book by providing his own counterarguments. Moreover, the author cites numerous studies and scientific works throughout the study to prove his point of view. Primarily, he uses the examples from the previous pro-Whorf studies and questions the controversial evidence of the relativity theory based on the linguistic differences in languages. Interestingly, the author questions the examples related to the differences between Russian and Chinese languages. Additionally, he provides his own empirical data demonstrating the peculiarities of languages usage in various contexts. He aims to show that such differences refer purely to the linguistic variety and are not correlated with the world perception.

It should be said that McWhorter is quite persuasive and persistent in demolishing the popular Whorfian myths. The author is a professor of linguistics in Columbia University, which probably increases the credibility of his work. McWhorter demonstrates the acknowledgement of the opposing perspective, including the updates offered by the Neo-Whorfian study. However, he provides detailed arguments to exclude the evidence provided in the studies to demonstrate it has no solid scientific background and cannot be regarded as a valid proof. Hence, the author recognizes the existence of the opposing points of view and takes them into account when promoting his perspective. He mainly emphasizes that the conducted experiments are artificial and do not correspond to the real surrounding and conditions; therefore, they do not reflect the real linguistic tendencies and the objective reality.

As it was already indicated, McWhorter clearly acknowledges the existence of opposing views and provides another perspective on the issue by rejecting it. He opts to examine the major arguments of the opposition one by one, revealing the empirical flaws or scientific irrelevance of the presented evidence. Overall, although the issue is quite scientific and the author himself is a scientist conducting profound study for his work, he has managed to write the book in a very comprehensive way without overly complicating the scientific matters. The information is presented in such a way that nonprofessionals can easily understand it. Moreover, he adds humor to the book to make it more interesting and entertaining for readers. At the same time, the authors tendency to use humor and simplify the ideas taken from the pro-Whorf sources might be seen as the weak points of the reading. This is because they make the book look unserious or unscientific. Furthermore, evidence is often presented in a rather patronizing tone. Thus, despite the fact that the work discusses serious scientific matters, it might appear to be rather entertaining than technical reading.

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In conclusion, even though McWhorter has conducted a detailed and thorough research, the book under analysis provokes a few questions requiring further investigation. First, only native speakers participated in the studies and experiments. However, people who are learning the second language and try to develop it to the advanced level have to differentiate many specific cultural nuances. Thus, it provokes a question how the process of learning a foreign language may influence a person and whether it somehow affects his or her perceptions and views. Second, all the evidence is based exclusively on the linguistic meanings, while such important parts of languages as tone and rhythm are ignored. It would be quite helpful to consider those factors as well since the intonation can play a crucial role, especially in the languages such as Chinese. Therefore, there are still numerous opportunities for further investigation and scientific research.

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