Wednesday, September 22, 2010

McWhorter, John. "Don't Believe the Hype About Aborigines, Yiddish, or Ebonics." THE NEW REPUBLIC September 2, 2010.

Judging from how the Times magazine’s excerpt from Guy Deutscher’s new book has been one of the most read pieces in the paper for over a week now, the book is on its way to libating readers ever eager for the seductive idea that people’s languages channel the way they think--that is, that grammar creates cultural outlooks.

“Oooh-mmmm!” I heard in a room once when a linguist parenthetically suggested that the reason speakers of one Native American language have prefixes instead of words to indicate mixing, poking, and sucking on food is because they are “culturally” attuned to such things.

But don’t we all cherish poking and sucking? As cool as it would be if grammar were thought, the idea is a myth--at least in any form that would be of interest beyond academic psychologists.

Deutscher is to be commended for noting that the original version of this idea has not held up. Fire-inspector-by-day Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed in the thirties that Hopi has no way to indicate tense, and thus created a cyclical sense of time among its speakers. But Hopi has plenty of words and suffixes to indicate tense, and the whole idea that Hopi was a substrate for a mystical frame of mind has fallen to pieces.

But Deutscher’s idea is that a new thread of work is showing that language does create thought patterns nevertheless. The upshot is supposed to be that human groups are going about with their grammatical structures lending them fascinatingly different Ways of Looking at the World.

Deutcher’s favorite evidence is peoples who sense direction not as a matter of front and back but as north, south, east and west. In their languages you say not “in front of me” but “west of me” and so on--meaning that where if we were turned around after saying something was in front of us we’d say that it was now in back of us, speakers of these languages would still say that it was west of them.

Neat. But are these people’s languages making them sensitive to direction rather than position--or is it, as almost anyone would intuit, that the culture focuses on direction and thus the language does? Americans have a plethora of terms referring to psychology--complex, affect, syndrome, superego, compensation. Yet who would say that it’s the English language that makes us sensitive to these things? It sounds like something a Martian anthropologist might come up with, too eager for the exotic to perceive--or settle for--the more mundane truth. . . .

See this post concerning the extract from Deutscher's book to which McWhorter alludes:

Read the rest of McWhorter's piece here:

No comments:

Post a Comment