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You Don't Say
John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.
NewsYou Don't Say

Language isn't determinist

University of Oxford

George Orwell appears to have gotten half the future right in 1984

The world of Big Brother aptly foretells the surveillance state that is watching all of us today. But Orwell's fears about Newspeak, that a totalitarian society could limit human thought by restricting language, failed to take into account the irresistible processes of subversion and change in language. (Or the prevalence of irony. As they used to sum up the essence of the Soviet system, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.") 

Orwell's Newspeak is a reflection of Whorfianism, after Benjamin Whorf, the belief that language expresses, even determines, the culture of the people who speak it. The popularization of this idea in journalism is something that John H. McWhorter sets out to demolish in The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $19.95). 

Mr. McWhorter, a distinguished linguist and the author of The Power of Babel and What Language Is, does not deny that language and culture reflect back on each other, but he is impatient with the belief that particular languages embody particular worldviews. He questions any linkage between language and culture "in which grammatical features and vocabulary configurations no native speaker would consider at all remarkable purportedly condition a way of processing life."

You may have seen a common example of this kind of thinking, that a given language has no word for x and therefore has no concept of x, can't express x. No, Mr. McWhorter argues, linguistics has ample evidence that "in any language, one can, if necessary, say anything.") 

(English used to have thou and you but now resorts to only you for both singular and plural. Should we conclude that English speakers have lost the ability to determine whether they are speaking to one person or several?) 

Language, he argues, with examples from a rich sampling of the planet's six thousand varieties, is not a cultural tool, but "an accretion of random habits." It does not "saddle speakers with blinders preventing them from perceiving what their vocabularies and grammars happen not to call attention to." 

It does not shape thought, and cultural patterns do not shape how language is structured. "Rather, the way a language is structured is a fortuitously ingrown capacity. It is a conglomeration of densely interacting subsystems, wielded at great speed below the level of consciousness, endlessly morphing into new sounds and structures due to wear and tear and accreted misinterpretations, such that one day what was once Latin is now French and Portuguese." 

His assertions are buttressed with evidence not from the one or two or three languages with which most of us may be familiar, but with a multitude of examples from languages and cultures around the world. 

Most of us are not linguists, and few of us have studied linguistics, which makes it all the more important for us to heed what empirical research, of the sort that Mr. McWhorter cites, can tell us about the workings of language, freeing us from the embrace of wayward popular errors. 

Your grammar is not your destiny. 


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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