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The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  798 ratings  ·  127 reviews
Japanese has a term that covers both green and blue. Russian has separate terms for dark and light blue. Does this mean that Russians perceive these colors differently from Japanese people? Does language control and limit the way we think, such that each language gives its speakers a different "worldview"?

This short, opinionated book addresses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, w
Hardcover, 182 pages
Published April 29th 2014 by Oxford University Press (first published February 20th 2014)
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Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
McWhorter has written a book that entirely refutes the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (Whorphianism) which is essentially that how we see the world is determined by the words we use, the language we speak. Essentially the language we learn in the culture we grow up in determines our thinking. McWhorter says rubbish, we all see the world the same no matter what language we speak. He says that the determining factor for our differering world-views is culture not the language we think in or express our vie ...more
Kevin Cole
Aug 24, 2014 rated it liked it
John McWhorter is a linguist who makes linguistics not only simple to understand but interesting. I have read all his books on language and so reading this new one was like coming home to a comfy sofa and a cup of coffee. This book is good, but I have given it only three stars because I thought its rather narrow focus on one particular issue went on too long.

That issue is this: The belief among anybody who is not a linguist that languages influence how you think and not the other way around. Thi
Forrest Gander
Jun 29, 2014 rated it it was ok
How does a guy who spends his life studying language have so little sense of its gracefulness, its subtleties, its sounds, its rhythms? How can he be so tone deaf? It's like this book was dictated through a megaphone. And what editor glanced at this? Who passed on sentences such as this one: "However, what they demonstrate is cultural traits that language reflects..." IS cultural traits? McWhorter is like someone with a supremely confident command of lists of ingredients and precise temperatures ...more
Aug 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Does the structure of the language we speak affect the way we think and how we perceive the world? If you are intrigued by that idea and don’t mind re-examining any cherished Sapir-Whorf beliefs you may have, this short but spirited and well argued book will be of interest. When we think of the fascinatingly structured Navajo language there is some appeal to the idea that its speakers have a special, maybe advanced, way of understanding reality, but with his usual well informed wit McWhorter mak ...more
Ross Blocher
Jan 09, 2019 rated it liked it
In The Language Hoax, John McWhorter argues against the notion that people who speak in different languages have differing conceptions of the world around them. That idea, that language influences thought, is called academically the "Whorfian Hypothesis" or "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" and has been around for nearly a century in varying forms. An early example was that the Hopi language lacks markers for past, present and future: the conclusion being that the Hopi people exist in a completely differ ...more
Oct 04, 2019 added it
Such a wonderful insight ‘the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world’- so many thoughts cross my mind! Indeed in English we say ‘long time’ but in Spanish ‘mucho tiempo’- ‘distance’, ‘an amount’- what if it is both? ( waiting for something to happen looks like a long, very long road you run and run and wish to see a sign for its end, and when eventually that something happens, time disappears - minutes and hours re-arrange their ‘particles’ in a shape that seems to have a mass ( ...more
May 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
We are told that what languages teach us about being human is how different we are. Actually, languages’ lesson for us is more truly progressive—that our differences are variations on being the same. Many would consider that something to celebrate.

In this book, John McWhorter tries to promote the idea that language and thought are interconnected, but that doesn't mean that our worldview is shaped by our language. In other words and in contrast to Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, people who speak Chinese,
Kaethe Douglas
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: format-ebooks
I'm kind of "meh" on his conclusions and his interest in some really trivial research*, but I love learn about how different languages do different things. Grammar is a void in my life, and he fills it nicely with his dad jokes at the ends of paragraphs and his snippets about how some languages doe this and some do that and how seemingly random it is.

*He describes several experiments in detail, and how they are testing whatever-the-hell with the similar kinds of test used for implicit bias (it s
Michelle Tran
It was very frustrating for me to get through the book as I had very high expectations for it. I had some problems with the tone (his use of rhetoric detracting from actual credible claims), but mostly with the lack of evidence to support his claims. He evokes intuition, but that made the argument very unscientific and uncredible. In the end, McWhorter's argument did not conflict with many proponents of the idea of linguistic relativity, and his actual argument against the strict interpretation ...more
Dec 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
John 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 Russi ...more
Nov 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-reads
McWhorter is not, as I had assumed before reading this, a complete anti-Whorfian. But he is troubled by the popular misunderstandings of Neo-Whorfian theories that exaggerate a few minuscule variations in how speakers may or may not perform on extremely subtle tests to mean that a language actually shapes how its speakers think and see the world.

McWhorter take Deutscher's Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages as a prime example of this popular misunderstan
Oct 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
This small book is a bit of a rant, but it's something interesting to think about and it's by John McWhorter, so we can all forgive him a published rant and also be very interested in what he has to say ;) Basically, McWhorter objects to the idea that language *controls* thought, to the extent that differences in language can determine that people who speak one language physically experience the world differently and think differently than people who speak a different language.

The pernicious ide
Jesse Markus
Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Well-written, persuasive, fascinating, and rigorous, McWhorter's most recent book tries to slay, once and for all, the persistent Whorfian myths that plague the public's conception of language. Although McWhorter studiously avoids straw men and caricatures, many adherents of Whorfian ideas will nevertheless insist that he is attacking a position that nobody holds. He is also careful to point out that Neo-Whorfian research actually has uncovered some evidence for extremely weak versions of the Sa ...more
Mayar El Mahdy
Jul 03, 2020 rated it liked it
This book is an argument against Whorf's theory that different languages have different ways of seeing the world.

I came into it not knowing anything about Whorf's theory but after a quick search, I feel like I know a lot of stuff. This book makes some valid points. It also uses multiple exclamation marks!!! I can't take that seriously. It burns my eyes.

I'm sorta anti-Whorfian now. I think culture shapes language and not vice versa. I'll need to read something pro-Whorf to make sure of my views o
Jul 14, 2014 added it
McWhorter gives two types of argument against "popular Neo-Whorfianism", the view that the language you speak shapes (in some way) your "world view".

The first type of argument is empirical. McWhorter grants experimental evidence supports "academic Neo-Whorfianism", the view that the language you speak shapes thought in subtle and surprising ways. But he denies that the influence of language on thought is significant enough to count as shaping anyone's "world view". One's world view is the resul
Dec 24, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, language
McWhorter's The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2001) and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (2008) are two of my favorite popular linguistics books. Funny, insightful and very readable, these two books even more than similar works by David Crystal or Geoffrey Nunberg set the standard for how to write about linguistics for an everyday reader. Here McWhorter's humor and memorable voice work well, yet the subject itself is pretty slight and would arguably ...more
Sean O'Hara
Oct 19, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: linguistics
McWhorter sets out to debunk popular misconceptions about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. At first he does so by showing what modern science says about it -- namely that it's only true to such a trivial extent that it could never have an impact on how societies develop. Great. End of book.

Except he keeps going. He trots out a bunch of thought experiments to support his arguments, but these are always things he's made up and have no empirical backing beyond that they feel right -- and in many cases t
Dwight Penny
Jan 17, 2020 rated it liked it
I learned in college, from a Linguistics professor very like McWhorter (witty, engaging, knowledgeable, eclectic and with great credentials), that "real" modern linguists reject outright The Whorfian Fallacy, the idea that the language you speak shapes, constructs and constrains your worldview. It was a great disappointment -- in the length of a single class session, we were introduced to this wonderful, seductive concept, almost in itself a justification for choosing such a weird major as Lingu ...more
Nov 29, 2019 rated it liked it
"The Language Hoax" Hoax

In this book, McWhorter argues against the linguistic relativity (Sapir-Whorf) hypothesis. Spoiler alert - with a lot of sarcasm but without much success.

1) A tedious read
McWhorter makes sure the reader gets his message evidenced by the fact that an impressive proportion of the text is just paraphrasing his main point. Reading this book felt like listening to the mantra - I should admit, it's a powerful way to be persuasive.

2) Misleading
To be fair, I should admit that McW
Chris Lott
Jul 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I imagine that some of the things I found delightful about John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language are just the things that will annoy other readers: it’s personal (haters say: not enough research), funny (haters say: condescending), a bit of a polemic (haters say: don’t challenge our romantic myths) and shows no mercy on pop-Whorfianism (haters: repeat random).

What is pop-Whorfianism? It’s the naive, broadly-brushed, disproven, zombie-like notion tha
May 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: languages
This book, by popular linguist John McWhorter, attacks the Sapir-Whorf theory, a theory that claims that the grammatical and lexical features of languages shape thought and culture. This theory somehow ended up gaining popular currency and has even made its way to popular media, most notably in last year's Arrival.

The truth is that linguistic features are arbitrary and do not evolve out of some cultural need or necessity, and that there is overlap between culture and language, but language is sh
Seán Ó HEithir
Jan 11, 2020 rated it liked it
Primarily concerned with the misconception of 'language shaping thought', McWhorter offers up solid and well reasoned arguments against the notion.
I can't shake the feeling that the arguments here could have been made in half the space and still carried the same weight.
By the end of the book I had long been convinced by the initial arguments presented, and was mostly still reading due to the interesting linguistic facts McWhorter came out with ever few pages

Overall a good read on a rather niche
This author raises belaboring a point to an art form that I don't think I'd ever imagined. Its not that the book is bad. It's that I feel like I've been pummeled. Okay. I give in. Language is arbitrary. Popular Whorfism is wrong. Most academic Worfism is right. Now I'm tired. I'm still hoping I eventually find a language book that I understand and like and didn't find exhausting.
Roland Pep M
Oct 06, 2020 added it
Shelves: skipped
Wrong pick. I have started the first two chapters, but I realised quickly, that this book speaks about a debate that I am not familiar with. It is like starting a book mid-way. So I gave it up for now. It is a pity, I like McWhorther style I was looking forward to it.
Dec 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: linguistics, audio
Good points, entertaining, but could have taken 1/2 the content to get the point across.
Ali Sattari
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
Good roundup on Whorfianism and the surrounding discussions.
✨ m e g a n ✨
Aug 19, 2019 rated it liked it
3 stars.

I can tell you one thing about this book. It's interesting and mind-bending.... but I have no idea what I just read. Oh crap, that was three things.
Jon Hilty
Jan 04, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
There were some interesting ideas throughout the book, but as another reviewer, or actually a handful I see, have noted, it seems like the idea for the book could have been covered satisfactorily in an essay or a novella-length text. I will probably check out more of McWhorter's works, as I've heard good things about his writing and ideas overall. I just hope they don't suffer from a similar dilemma.
Jun 03, 2014 added it
Short as this book is, it could perhaps have been quite a bit shorter.
Sep 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Neither Whorfian nor Chomskian. Be still my heart.
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John Hamilton McWhorter (Professor McWhorter uses neither his title nor his middle initial as an author) is an American academic and linguist who is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations. His research spec ...more

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  Tami Charles is a former teacher and the author of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction. As a teacher, she made...
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“If you want to learn about how humans differ, study cultures. However, if you want insight as to what makes all humans worldwide the same, beyond genetics, there are few better places to start than how language works.” 2 likes
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