John McWhorter's concise little book, while written in his ever-entertaining style, nevertheless illuminates a serious issue which has vexed the populJohn McWhorter's concise little book, while written in his ever-entertaining style, nevertheless illuminates a serious issue which has vexed the popular understanding of linguistics for decades: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism; the idea that what kind of language one speaks, specifically in terms of how its grammar expresses ideas, shapes one's thought to such a degree that speakers of different languages actually perceive the world differently. Shades of blues are more vivid to Russian eyes, with their two different words for lighter and darker varieties of what English (and many, but by no means all, other languages) considers "one color." East Asians are more attuned to what kinds of materials various stuff is made of because many languages in the region force one to classify objects into certain categories (long, thin objects, flat objects, small animals) when one counts them. These and more are the classic examples which proponents of the Whorfian paradigm put forward as proof that different human groups, because of what their language's GRAMMAR (as opposed to their culture) forces them to take note of, are somehow more "alive" to these particular facets of reality.
This just isn't true. At least not to the degree that has been claimed. McWhorter cites the large body of evidence which demonstrates that outside of highly contrived laboratory experiments (which do suggest some small perceptual differences), the mechanics of grammar do not affect thought to any significant or meaningful degree. Culture affects how one thinks and the way in which one uses language. The structure of one's language (such as whether it assigns nouns grammatical gender) simply does not affect how or what one thinks about in "real world" situations. Experiments trying to prove otherwise give marginal results. The idea that languages shape a pervasive worldview for their speakers is therefore simply incorrect. This should be a closed book except that it sometimes seems as if people who are not linguists simply will not abandon the idea.
Whorfianism in its extreme, all-encompassing worldview-shaping sense, is of those pernicious little concepts which, although largely discredited by empirical research and no longer given (much) credit among linguists, has filtered into the humanities as well as the sort of NPR-listening tier of popular consciousness through journalistic rather than scientific sources and entrenched itself. McWhorter generously acknowledges that the motive behind this is noble; the impulse to celebrate diversity and acknowledge the possible existence and equal validity of radically different ways of perceiving reality. It must be said that Whorf had an agenda when he put forth his theory that language shapes worldview. Specifically, he wished to prove that the Hopi Indians' relationship to time was conditioned by their language, and, in effect, gave them a separate but equal worldview vis-a-vis time to that of Westerners; one that is cyclical, rather than linear (he was also wrong, incidentally, about how the Hopi mark time in their language.)
McWhorter, however, makes what I consider the definitive case for why this is a poor and potentially harmful way to celebrate diversity; Whorfian claims ultimately offer little but exotification and back-handed compliments to (often, though not always, non-Western, low-population size) speakers of other languages, almost always, it seems, by monolingual Anglophones with college educations who are all too ready to chastise themselves for the perceived lack of vibrancy in their own culture ("Whoa, you must be so, like...in TOUCH with modality from all the explicit marking you do, man.") He also shows convincingly that even linguists who embrace Whorfian ideas have a track record of only doing so to the degree that they are "comforting"; i.e. that they show that non-Western or even simply non-Anglophone peoples (such as the French and their different words for knowing facts and knowing people) have an "expanded" worldview compared to that of the English-speakers conducting the studies. Studies that suggest possible deficiencies in "the other" (such as Mandarin Chinese's lack of many of the shades of conditionality that English has, and what that might imply about how its speakers process the hypothetical) are quickly denounced and expunged from the canon.
Ultimately Whorfianism as understood by the benighted NPR listener is one more Noble Savage fallacy with which to pat oneself on the back for grappling with the idea that people in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea might be more "in tune" with group dynamics than us selfish, despoiling Westerners because their grammar requires them to mark certain things about the number or gender of people involved in some speech event. All Whorfian explanations for how grammar effects cognition similarly collapse into this kind of just-so story under scrutiny.
So then what makes some languages mark certain aspects of reality (like whether something happened in the past) explicitly in their grammar while others leave them to context and yet are still fully developed systems for expressing complex human thought? McWhorter continually emphasizes the linguistic truth of the matter: chance. Whether a language marks something in its grammar or not is virtually random (barring the obvious relationship it bears to the developmental history of that language) and it has nothing to do with the alleged Weltschmerz of a given "ethnos." For some reason, this is very hard for non-linguists to accept. The humanist types in question, especially, seem to only care about the mechanics of language, so fascinating in and of themselves, in as much as they might serve as a window into the "soul" of a people. For a linguist, this is probably the single most depressing aspect of this book. Language, as McWhorter states many times, is just so darn cool on its own terms. Its study, especially the study of small and dying languages, should not need to be justified for any other reason than that its variety is endlessly awe-inspiring, not because that variety tells us anything in particular about how a certain people "thinks." Their cultural practices will tell you that, in all likelihood loudly and forcefully. Why look through a glass darkly for hints that the Japanese are vaguely more sensitive to the composition of "stuff" because they use classifiers, rather than read their literature, or appreciate their art to learn that they have a particular love for all things wistfully transient?
In effect, McWhorter demonstrates what linguists and cognitive scientists have known for a long time; that culture shapes language, not the other way around, and that all people around the world think pretty much the same way, which in itself should be the more comforting realization. Now if NPR would just start sending copies of this book to all its listeners......more
Frank Portman's first novel, King Dork, is as engaging a read as his second novel, Andromeda Klein (which I happened to read first.) It's going to beFrank Portman's first novel, King Dork, is as engaging a read as his second novel, Andromeda Klein (which I happened to read first.) It's going to be difficult for me to resist comparing them somewhat. They're both great books, and you should read them, and let your kids read them (but probably not read them with your kids, that might be awkward.)
The eponymous hero of King Dork, Tom Henderson, is an intelligent, thoughtful high school sophomore doggedly slogging his way through the California public school system, where these traits are not appreciated by either his fellow students or his teachers. His father, who may have shared these traits, is dead, and the strange circumstances of his death "in the line of duty" in the Santa Clara police force (as well as clues to his own adolescent experience during the nineteen sixties, in the form of scribbled notes in the margins of books he read as a teen) becomes a mystery Tom hopes to somehow solve. Tom's stepfather is well-meaning but inept at interpreting the needs of an introverted fourteen-year-old, and his mother is detached and deeply troubled in some unspecified way that involves lots of prescription and non-prescription sedatives. Tom is perpetually and sometimes violently harassed by both students and teachers at school, and has only one real friend by virtue of alphabetic proximity, Sam Hellerman. They are in a band together, which faces some minor obstacles to success such as their not having a drummer, or musical instruments.
Some of this may sound like a caricature of the teenage social outcast who is actually smarter and more sensitive than everyone else in the room, including most adults. But this is intentional, for reasons I will get to that involve a certain widely-read high school English classic. Tom's easy, funny first-person narration, distinctive point of view, and lack of overt self-pity (in favor of wry wit and occasional justifiable rage) make him a fully-realized individual rather than a type. Similar to Andromeda Klein, Portman deftly and realistically weaves "issues" into the back story and environment of his characters in a way that seems integral and true to life, rather than using them as the focus of his plot, and thus subjecting us to another heavy-handed "YA book about issues."
The thing that really sets King Dork apart, though, especially for adult readers interested in a YA book with sophisticated thematic undertones, is its unromantic examination of the baby boom/Vietnam generation Tom's father belonged to, and some of the negative effects of its legacy on the generations that followed. King Dork's plot is spurred into action by and continually refers back to the irony of the institutionalized reading of the book The Catcher in the Rye in schools. Holden Caulfield's cozy, high school curriculum-sanctioned version of now-antiquated mid-century rebelliousness and "free thinking" is contrasted with the reality of adolescence at the turn of the 21st century (King Dork is set in 1999, and teaches your kids about things like pay phones!) The paragraph on page 323 of my edition, which sardonically sums up what the baby boomers have wrought, and links it to the degraded educational system Tom Henderson must now struggle through is overly long to quote here, but it's pure gold.
King Dork is also an indictment of the public school system in general. In this respect it reminded me so much of some of my other favorite YA titles by Daniel Pinkwater, specifically Alan Mendelson, Boy from Mars, and aspects of The Snarkout Boys (both reprinted in 5 Novels: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars / Slaves of Spiegel / The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death / The Last Guru / Young Adult Novel,) that I had to wonder if this was entirely coincidental. Or maybe both authors just paint a terrifyingly accurate portrait of public school drawn from their own, separate experiences. I don't know. But I have been a Daniel Pinkwater fan my entire reading life, and I can only hope that Mr. Portman proves even half so prolific. King Dork is kind of like a new, updated version of Alan Mendelson, now complete with profanity, soft drugs, and girls, girls, girls!
Speaking of girls, I was disappointed to see that some readers disliked or rated King Dork poorly because they felt it was "sexist" and "objectifying" of women, so much so I feel I have to address it. It is currently fashionable to endlessly analyse every piece of media and human interaction through this lens, and in my opinion it has become an extremely lazy form of criticism. King Dork is a smart book, and given everything else about it, there is certainly more artfulness to its portrayal of girls than quote-un-quote "casual misogyny." For one thing, alienated from the high school social order as he is, Tom Henderson kind of dehumanizes everyone of any sex who he views as "normal" (and thus psychopathic and invested with a universal mandate to keep the dorks of this world in their place, though violent means if necessary.) Yet oddly enough, I didn't see any reviews decrying Tom for objectifying jocks as subhuman, testosterone-driven brutes, because he totally does this. His view of them is simply uncomplicated by the lack of a conflicting desire to grab their butts (it's just not that kind of book.)
I thought Tom's attempts to grapple with the fair sex seemed like an honest portrayal of both the thrill and the anguish of being fourteen and male (I have never been male, and some people might argue that I have never been fourteen, so I can only guess here.) Given that Tom's stepfather at one point gives him a painfully awkward, absolutely impotent and disorienting "respect women" speech, which somehow also manages to be about guns, Vietnam, and his own fragile self-esteem more than it is about any of Tom's real problems indicates to me that this is yet another comment on how the boomers' collective attempt to remake the world failed, and failed their children. Free love is a messy, messy business. (view spoiler)[Plus, if you didn't almost kind of choke up at least a tiny bit at Tom's wistful description of what it might be like to be in a true Sex Alliance Against Society, you basically have no heart. (hide spoiler)] And if you're still unconvinced that Frank Portman can write anything other than some kind of author surrogate character who spends half his time fetishizing Portman's own tastes in classic rock music and the other half ogling girls, kindly direct your attention to Andromeda Klein, whose protagonist IS a girl, whose knowledge of music ends with composition dates after AD 1500.
That being said, some people might find the frequent digressions about classic rock a little irritating. Andromeda Klein is open to similar criticism. I get it, not everyone reads novels in order to excel on panel games in the categories of Rock and Roll History or Great Minds of Western Occultism (though Tom Henderson and Andromeda Klein would certainly find this a kinder, gentler world if they did.) What can I say? In my opinion, Dr. Frank makes it work. And I don't even know that much about rock and roll history.
I could list so many other great things about this book, like all the hilarious band names and first album titles Tom and Sam come up with (which are helpfully collected at the end of the book for easy reference!) or the pop-up devil-head vocabulary mispronunciations, or the fact that Frank Portman's books both contain glossaries, which is really neat for the kind of people who say things like "How neat! This book contains a glossary," and who are exactly the kind of people who would like Frank Portman books.
Because I had read Andromeda Klein first (and I'm sure this would have happened if I had read King Dork first), by about half-way through the book, I thought I pretty much had the Frank Portman Formula down; alienated, detail-oriented youth with minute knowledge of obscure subject matters, seemingly-unrelated-but-converging mysteries, clues hidden in old books linked to dead people by sets of initials, high school basement parties rekindling hope of lost or previously-undreamed-of romantic possibilities. But ultimately I could not have guessed how King Dork was going to end, and there were still several surprises before I turned the final pages. As Tom Henderson is forced to conclude, not everything in life can be fit into a neatly unified theory of events. There is no great manual to the universe which, if we could somehow read it, would tell us exactly why things happen the way that they do. Sometimes, it's pretty random. Some coincidences really are just coincidences after all. Of course, Andromeda Klein would tell him that's ridiculous....more