THE CONQUERING TONGUE
JOHN H. MCWHORTER
John McWhorter is a columnist for Time
and The New Republic, and teaches at Columbia University.
His books include The Power of Babel, Our Magnificent Bastard
Tongue and most recently The Language Hoax.
can count on it to leave a classroom quiet enough to hear a
pin drop: the idea that one’s language shapes how one
views the world. The idea was first popularized by amateur linguist
Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, based on his study of the language
of the Hopi. Whorf claimed that Hopi has no markers of tense,
and that this was why the Hopi have a cyclical rather than linear
sense of time.
ninety years later the very idea of such a thing is catnip to
roughly anyone. Yet Whorf’s depiction of Hopi turned out
to be inaccurate, and his early death deprived us of knowing
how he would have adjusted his framework as a result. But he
sparked a school of thought that has lived on since, in which
linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists -- today, especially
the latter -- seek to show that language influences thought
to some degree.
worker today has the near-mystical take on the matter of Whorf,
who took the idea as far as supposing that European languages
predestined their speakers to create modern science, an endeavor
he thought to be marred by neglect of the more holistic bent
of languages less bound by notions of past, present and future.
However, a commitment continues to showing that to some extent,
hardly absolute but potent enough to merit discussion, your
language shapes your thought patterns. By extension, we are
to suppose that how a language’s vocabulary divides up
things and actions (e.g. whether like Hopi it has different
words for water in nature and water that you are drinking) and
how its grammar works (e.g. whether it has tense, whether it
distinguishes 'th'e from 'a') corresponds to the essence of
idea is not only inviting but, to some, useful: Whorfianism
can serve as a resonant tool for consciousness raising about
a looming linguistic catastrophe, the disappearance of as much
as 90 percent of the world’s 6000 languages over the course
of this century. Already, 96 percent of the world’s people
speak one or more of just twenty ‘big’ languages
alongside their local ones. Many of those languages are the
linguistic equivalent of kudzu: English, Mandarin and Indonesian,
for example, tend to edge out and exterminate smaller languages.
The preface of a grammatical description of the obscure language
of a small group quite often includes an observation that the
language is no longer spoken by children, which almost guarantees
its extinction as a living language.
of the world’s languages will reveal as many awkward implications
about world view as laudatory ones.
ordinary people, the disappearance of an obscure language can
seem inconsequential. One may suppose that life progresses,
that as modernity brings groups together it is inevitable that
smaller languages will no longer be useful, and that in the
grand scheme of things, the welfare of a people is more important
than whether or not they happen to still be using their elders’
views like that horrify those dedicating their lives to documenting
and helping keep alive tiny languages few will ever hear of.
They argue that the disappearance of a language is the disappearance
of a particular way of seeing the world, which the rest of us
are poorer for having missed, in the same way that threatened
plants or animals are often described as possible sources of
chemicals or survival strategies.
argument is powerful, handy, and heartfelt -- which is what
makes it all the more awkward that it doesn’t hold up.
It leaves a question: If languages are not world views, then
is there value in saving them regardless?
INCONVIENT TRUTH ABOUT WORLD VIEWS
the world view notion, the data are in. Does language influence
thought? Yes, a wee bit, but in no sense significantly enough
to be called a world view. Certainly, a culture is encoded partly
in words for things and beliefs, something easily perceived,
utterly undeniable and, therefore, of little true interest.
A culture based on strict social hierarchy will have elaborate
proliferations of different terms for 'you.' In the language
of a culture living on a mountain, the words for up and down
will be more central to the grammar than in the language of
a people living on the tundra.
Whorfianism claims something more than this: that to know the
basic vocabulary and grammar of, say, Chinese is to have your
thoughts urged strongly into a ‘Chinese’ worldview
distinct from a Portuguese or Indonesian one. But scholarly
inquiry has revealed no such thing. Language differences do
create fascinating peeps of cognitive difference, to be sure.
Russian has different words for dark and light blue, and Russians
turn out, in experimentation by psychologist Lera Boroditzky,
to be a tad faster at distinguishing shades of blue straddling
the line between dark and light than English speakers. Just
a tad -- 124 milliseconds on the average. That is indeed fascinating
in itself, and results of that kind have been shown in countless
ways for various language pairs at this point. Believe it or
not, people whose language assigns a gender to inanimate objects
(Spanish’s el sombrero for hat versus la
luna for moon) are more likely to assign those things traits
traditionally assigned to males and females under the conditions
of a psychological experiment.
question, though, is whether the experiments demonstrate a world
view. That is, does blue ‘pop’ more at an art museum
if you speak Russian? Do Spanish speakers actually think of
hats as ‘guys’ and moons as ‘ladies’?
One wants the answer to be yes -- until learning of other kinds
of world views Whorfianism can suggest in perfectly innocent
example, in Mandarin, one can leave aspects of the counterfactual
and hypothetical to context much more than we are used to in
a language like English. For example, to say If you had
seen my sister, you would have known she was pregnant,
a typical way to say it in Mandarin would be If you see
my sister, you know she is pregnant, which is also the
way you could say If you saw my sister, you knew she was
pregnant. Now, according to the Whorfian view, we would
expect that Chinese makes a person somewhat less sensitive than
we are to the hypothetical -- what English conveys with obligatory
had’s and would’s and would
have’s. And this is exactly what work by Alfred Bloom
in the early eighties found: Mandarin speakers were somewhat
less adept at answering questions requiring reference to the
because of the unsavoury implications of a conclusion that suggests
that Chinese speakers are less quick on the uptake than Westerners,
Bloom’s work elicited a long series of attempts at refutation.
The result was essentially a draw -- no one was capable of entirely
discrediting Bloom’s conclusions. Here’s the rub:
faced with a proposal that to be Chinese is to be a touch dim,
most of us will decide that whatever was shown in the artificial
conditions of a psychological experiment can hardly be treated
as indicating a world view. That is: Chinese grammar is somewhat
uninterested in hypotheticality, but Chinese people are just
like anyone else. Language may influence thought a tiny bit,
but not enough to, basically, matter outside of a psychology
however: if this is the intelligent response to Whorfian results
that are unflattering, then consistency requires that it be
the same when the result suggests a higher sensitivity to blue,
interpersonal relations, interest in what material things are
made of, or any number of other cool traits that have been attributed
to speakers of languages based on how their vocabularies and
grammars work. To wit: the fun bits involving blue and gender
make us ask “Who’s to say what a world view is?”
And the answer is that these experiments are showing us a world
view to exactly the extent to which we are ready to call the
Bloom experiment’s results evidence of a world view. In
other words, no world view at all.
today’s affection for Whorfianism is ironic given that
assorted thinkers in earlier times were given to similar claims
in ways that are no more attractive to us today than the implications
of Bloom’s work can seem. Prussian thinker Heinrich von
Treitschke opined in the nineteenth century that “differences
of language inevitably imply differing outlooks on the world,”
within a typology of estimation under which Third Worlders (and
Lithuanians) were “barbarians.” Of course today’s
Whorfian only intends to identify “differing outlooks”
in an approving or perhaps neutral way. But that brings us back
to cases like Chinese: a scan of the world’s languages
will reveal as many awkward implications about world view as
assimilated groups can retain cultural distinctiveness. However,
it would be just as difficult to deny that loss of language
is typically accompanied by a significant degree of assimilation
to the dominant culture, and is, in fact, a symptom of it.
WHY SAVE LANGUAGES?
save dying languages, then? The question is especially urgent
given two challenges rarely addressed squarely by people devoted
to language preservation.
One: If languages are valuable in reflecting a world view, then
wouldn’t we be doing our job in simply recording the language’s
words and structure for posterity? With the world view duly
preserved for us, wouldn’t the languages’ continuing
to be actually spoken become irrelevant?
Two: Language preservation skeptics are sometimes heard to say
that the world would be better off with just one, or maybe just
a few, languages, because translation is expensive and imperfect,
and language diversity is overall an impediment to communication
and understanding. In other words, there’s a reason the
Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel is written as a tragedy.
There are those who read this observation as a callous thumbs-up
for English eating up the world’s languages, a language
laden with sins of empire centuries deep. However, the observation
need not be taken as such: one might imagine the sole remaining
language as Hungarian or Xhosa. The question can be posed as
a schematic one, hardly unworthy of posing: would a monolingual
world necessarily be a lesser one? Especially when the argument
that each language represents a world view is not as impregnable
as often implied?
even without the flawed science of treating these languages
as world views, and in the face of these challenges, I believe
that there is an argument that 1) at least a goodly number of
threatened languages should be kept alive as living systems,
and 2) that a monolingual world would indeed be poorer in contrast.
That argument is threefold.
preservationists often say that when a language dies, the culture
dies with it. From them, the statement is founded in the Whorfian
perspective, but even if languages are not world views in the
way Whorfianism seeks to show, there is value in the idea that
the very fact of having a separate language is a keystone to
constituting a culture.
linguistically assimilated groups can retain cultural distinctiveness.
Few would claim that Reform American Jewishness is no longer
a culture because its members no longer use Yiddish in the home.
One would be on even thinner ice to claim that Native Americans
in the United States who no longer speak their ancestral language
are therefore no longer meaningfully Indian.
it would be just as difficult to deny that loss of language
is typically accompanied by a significant degree of assimilation
to the dominant culture, and is, in fact, a symptom of it. It
is hardly accidental, for example, that Jews who do continue
to use Yiddish in the home are also those who observe the directives
of the Torah much more closely than others. In general, the
very ability to communicate in a language incomprehensible to
outsiders occasions, and even embodies, an in-group cohesion
less self-generating if no such code exists.
this is true without a language corresponding to a cultural
world view: the issue is not what the language is like, but
its sheer existence as a language different from others. Under
this analysis, a language is like a tartan. The very fact of
a Scottish clan’s association with a particular pattern
is a vibrant token of its distinctiveness, despite that no one
would say that there is any inherent association between that
tartan’s colours and patterns and what the clan is like
if there is a commitment to cultural preservation -- and note
that no one could deny that cultures, as opposed to languages,
differ in terms of world views -- then language preservation
can be seen as a component of that quite independently of the
Whorfian perspective and its pitfalls.
studies have shown that bilingualism enhances cognitive function.
Again, the point is the fact of bilingualism itself, not which
languages are spoken and which world views they purportedly
lend. The analogy is with exercise or playing a musical instrument:
The sheer act is the key, not the particularities of swimming
over the treadmill or the violin over the flute.
control two languages has been shown in children to enhance
the brain’s executive function, which directs problem
solving, concentration and multitasking. There is even evidence
that the higher the degree of bilingual proficiency, the later
the onset of dementia is in elderly people. As such, another
argument for keeping languages alive is that speaking more than
one language is, in itself, good for mental functioning and
by extension, the world as a whole.
layman often supposes that languages differ simply in having
different words for things, partly because of the prescriptive
tradition under which grammar is taught mostly as a collection
of sentence patterns one is to avoid. However, languages differ
far more than we tend to be aware, such that there is a value
in language preservation simply because of the magnificence
of variation among the world’s 6,000 different ways of
speaking. The analogy is with, again, flora and fauna. Languages
bedazzle in their diversity to a degree that most, if aware
of it, would understand the value in preserving -- and even
as living languages rather than as data on pages and in recordings.
Languages differ much more than in which word they use for water
and how one says goodbye.
randomly chosen examples can illustrate the point:
There are dialects of Flemish in which how you say 'yes' depends
on person and number just as verb endings do. If I say yes I
say jok; if we say yes we say jom; if someone
asks if your friend did something and you say 'Yes,' you say
“Jot, he did it.”
In this language of Southeast Asia, all syllables have different
meanings according to seven different tones. So, to say po
with a swoop down means ‘female.’ With a swoop up
it means ‘throw.’ Say it on a high pitch and it
means ‘ball-shaped.’ On a low pitch it means ‘thorn.’
On a pitch somewhere in the middle it means ‘pancreas.’
Say it with a creaky tone and it means ‘see,’ and
say it with a breathy tone that sounds kind of like how Marilyn
Monroe talked, and it means ‘paternal grandmother.’
This is the case with every syllable, not just some -- it’s
how the whole language works. There are some who might admire
the very speaking of such a language in the same way that they
admire the flight of an albatross or the acrobatics of an Olympic
In this African language of Zambia, there are eight shades of
past tense: things that started happening today, things that
finished happening today, things that finished happening today
and are truly done with, the regular past, the past further
back (Elvis left the building), the perfective form of that
past (as in Elvis has left the building where repercussions
of the event persist), the more distant past, and things that
happened continuously in that more distant past. Clearly, English
with its mere past, perfect and pluperfect is less interesting
language harbors traits of this kind, fascinatingly different
from what Whorf termed “Standard Average European.”
Crucially, traits like these emerge only over centuries and
even millennia of daily usage by communities, within which new
habits drift into the system and take hold, becoming tomorrow’s
grammar. Once a language is dead, this kind of efflorescence
is, of course, forever stanched.
remaining question is whether we can expect to save all of the
world’s dying languages, or even most of them. The answer
to that question requires reference to an aspect of the matter
insufficiently attended to: that acquiring fluency in a language
is difficult as an adult, and the tragedy is that the smaller
a language, the more complex it tends to be. When history has
thrown a lot of non-native speakers at a language -- which is
usually because it has been a language of empire or jostled
around between some of them -- that language has tended to become
somewhat streamlined grammatically. Hence a language such as
English, where the Viking invasions of the eighth and ninth
centuries left it with no gender for inanimate objects, barely
any case marking suffixes, only a single ending, -s on verbs
in the present tense, etc.
of English -- and a few other Western European languages with
a similar degree of imperfect learning in their pasts -- often
have no way to spontaneously imagine how fearsomely more complex
most languages in the world are. That means that language preservation
asks a massive learning task, much more than memorizing some
words and expressions and a few lists of endings. To a person
raised in English, Spanish is hard enough -- but in a Native
American language like Navajo, all verbs are irregular. It is
one thing to acquire a halting command of a language like this
-- and quite another to imagine speaking it 24/7 to your child,
when this is precisely what truly reanimating a language would
that reason, as I have opined elsewhere, in the case of languages
whose fluent speakers are now all elderly we cannot expect them
to be reborn as languages lived in by whole communities. Sadly,
the learning task is perhaps greater than many have any reason
to be aware, such that a reasonable expectation is that descendants
of speakers will know words and expressions as a cultural hallmark,
taught down the generations certainly with the help of scholars
who have recorded what the language was like when it was alive.
Certainly there will be uniquely dedicated individuals who manage
stronger command of the ancestral language than this, but the
eternal question will always be whether there are enough such
people to constitute a community passing the language down to
there are languages that are still spoken by enough people today
that the trend towards extinction could possibly be reversed,
especially with the help of modern tools such as online pedagogical
reinforcement and texting. Navajo is one of them: as recently
as 1981 85 percent of Navajo children spoke it as a first language
and it was often cited as a Native American language success
story, but more recently that number is down to 25 percent.
Maori in New Zealand is another example: by the 1980s, only
one in five Maori spoke the language with true fluency, and
a revival movement flowered into the 1990s but has waned considerably
since. However, both languages have had rather ample media footprints
where they are spoken, and both have been well-studied and therefore
have robust representation on the page, to assist those who
seek to study or teach them.
cases like these -- languages that are on the ropes but realistically
revivable -- their reanimation is worth the difficulty of acquiring
languages as an adult.
because of the nature of that task, more linguists and educators
should be working to address how to teach adults to actually
speak languages quite unlike English and its close Romance and
Germanic relatives, for the very purpose of assisting the survival
of threatened languages. That effort of course must happen in
conjunction with language preservationists as well. All concerned
must attend closely to what is actually required in reviving
a language as a spoken vehicle of actual communication. Experimentation
will be healthy, and results ought be shared and used rigorously
as the basis for further efforts. Two issues could be seen as
among those foremost to consider.
over writing. Teachers must be fully aware that speaking is
quite different from writing and, in reference to keeping a
language alive, much more important. Too often, for example,
students of Chinese and Arabic are taught to focus so much on
mastering the writing system of the languages that they learn
little of how to actually express themselves, which makes boredom
and frustration too likely after a year or two. The analogous
mistake should not be made when imparting languages on the verge
the history of humankind, almost all languages have been passed
on by illiterates; even after the invention of writing 5,500
years ago, only over the past few centuries has literacy been
common in certain privileged societies. Even today, only about
a hundred languages are written ones, while the vast majority
are passed on orally. Someone able to pass a language on to
their child despite not knowing how to write in it is more valuable
than someone who can teach their child how to write some words
but not how to express themselves in spontaneous sentences.
is a word? Many linguists are arriving at a conception of the
‘word’ that includes what are often considered ‘idioms’
traditionally. To speak a language is to manipulate a continuum
of ‘chunks’ of which isolated words are just one
kind, while idioms like might as well or expressions such as
“You have the wrong X” -- a concept expressed variously
in languages, hardly only with the word for ‘wrong’
-- are others. Beyond a certain point -- and an earlier one
than often thought -- learners should be given the full range
of chunks that are needed to communicate in a basic fashion,
beyond the “My uncle is a lawyer but my aunt has a spoon”
school of language-textbook vocabulary. To wit, learners who
can convey anyway, upside-down, 'right' in the middle, I’m
'good at' this, They’re 'the same size', It doesn’t
fit, and He’ll get over it are well on their way
to actually speaking a language even if they have no idea of
what the words are for things traditionally presented to learners
as basic such as forks, cousins, horses, and shoes.
language preservationists, the claim that languages do not express
world views is not popular. An article such as this one, because
of its first sections alone, will occasion a degree of irritation
among those who have so often argued that a language is a cultural
perspective. However, in the end, this article has been intended
as a positive one. Even if languages do not afford their speaker
a particular pair of glasses through which they see the world,
there is value in preserving as many of them as we can.
sometimes surmised that many language preservationists stress
the world view argument out of a kind of benevolent pragmatism,
seeing it as the easiest sell to a lay audience amidst a situation
that demands immediate address. I propose, however, that the
public may be open to arguments of a different kind, that avoid
the pitfalls of overselling academic results, of leaving groups
open to unsavoury descriptions as well as pleasant ones, and
even of a kind of unintended exoticization.
the latter, for example, who among us is ready to say that English
embodies a world view that all of its speakers share, one more
robust than the obvious cultural differences between English
speakers in Massachusetts, Melbourne, Norwich, Kenya, Johannesburg
and New Delhi? Other languages can be said to express world
views to exactly the extent that English can: to so minimal
a degree that few would consider the issue worth extended engagement
as a matter of sociological import.
are valuable quite beyond this, and the news must be spread
as far and wide as Whorfianism has been.