Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do different languages create "fascinatingly different Ways of Looking at the World"?

Nope, says linguist John McWhorter in a review of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher. (Here's an excerpt from the book.)

"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."

McWhorter recognizes that differences in language lead to some differences in thought — just not fascinating or profound differences. A couple examples:

Speakers of languages with gender are more likely to imagine — if asked on a survey, which typically they never are — feminine nouns talking with higher voices than masculine ones. So, your French friend, if you woke her up in the middle of the night, would be more likely to imagine a table — feminine la table — talking like Meryl Streep than you would. OK — but is this “a way of looking at the world”? Does your friend think of tables as ladies? Ask her — she doesn’t.

Or — many languages have a word that covers both green and blue. Call it “grue.” Their speakers distinguish blue and green very slightly less quickly than English speakers do. Is this a “world view”? I can only quote my erstwhile UC Berkeley colleague Paul Kay with Willett Kempton here: “If the differences in world view are to be interesting, they must be sizeable. Minuscule differences are dull.”