Japanese has a term that covers both green and blue. Russian has separate terms for dark and light blue. Does this mean that Russians perceive these colors differently from Japanese people? Does language control and limit the way we think?
This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. Linguist John McWhorter argues that while this idea is mesmerizing, it is plainly wrong. It is language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around. The fact that a language has only one word for eat, drink, and smoke doesn't mean its speakers don't process the difference between food and beverage, and those who use the same word for blue and green perceive those two colors just as vividly as others do.
McWhorter shows not only how the idea of language as a lens fails but also why we want so badly to believe it: we're eager to celebrate diversity by acknowledging the intelligence of peoples who may not think like we do. Though well-intentioned, our belief in this idea poses an obstacle to a better understanding of human nature and even trivializes the people we seek to celebrate. The reality -- that all humans think alike -- provides another, better way for us to acknowledge the intelligence of all peoples.
McWhorter (The Power of Babel), a linguistics professor at Columbia University, celebrates the diversity of languages and the cultures that speak them in this persuasive rebuttal to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first advanced in the field of linguistics in the 1930s. That hypothesis holds that language channels the way a culture views the world that Russians, who have two specific words for blue, are more sensitive than other cultures to nuances of color; that the Amazonian Pirah tribe, whose language has no numbers, don't know how to count; and so on. Challenging a number of Whorfian studies and the cultural assumptions extrapolated from them, McWhorter shows how improbable it is that a culture's language is encoded with its worldview: that the Amazon Tuyucas, whose language is thick with evidential markers that establish the veracity of information that is being conveyed, are somehow more skeptical than the ancient Greeks, whose language has no evidential markers, for example. McWhorter writes with liveliness and enthusiasm, noting: "All languages are, in their own ways, as utterly awesome as creatures, snowflakes, Haydn string quartets, or what The Magnificent Ambersons would have been like if Orson Welles had been allowed to do the final edit." This book makes very accessible to the lay reader some of the more esoteric theories of linguistic studies.