The World According to Whorf

A member of the Hopi tribe (Robert Alexander, Archive Photos, Getty Images)

In 1938 a chemical engineer and amateur linguist named Benjamin Whorf visited a Hopi reservation in Arizona and concluded that the residents there had no words for time. No “was” or “will”; only “is.” For Whorf, and for many descriptive linguists who followed him, the supposed lack of past and future tenses in the Hopi language was more than just a grammatical curiosity. It revealed something deep and meaningful about the speakers themselves. The Hopi were a people permanently in the present.

John McWhorter wishes to drive a stake through the heart of that claim, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the language-as-lens theory. In his slim new book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, argues that Whorf’s idea is not just wrong but dangerous. Believing that the language we speak profoundly affects how we view the world, he writes, “forces us into endless contradictions, unwitting disparagement of billions of the world’s human beings, and even cartoonish perspectives about ourselves.” McWhorter wants to show that “we can vibrantly acknowledge the intelligence and sophistication of indigenous people in another way: by stressing that all humans are mentally alike.”

Or if not exactly alike, at least extremely similar. He describes an experiment by Daniel Casasanto, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, that found that English speakers were better at guessing when a slowly lengthening line would reach the edge of a screen than they were at estimating when a square would slowly fill up with a color. For Spanish speakers, the reverse was true.

Benjamin Whorf (Benjamin Lee Whorf Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)

How could that be? Perhaps because in English, the metaphor for time is often length (“I had a long day”), while in Spanish people often refer to time as stuff.

Interesting! But not that interesting, writes McWhorter. “The Spanish speaker with his mucho tiempo walks about a Saturday afternoon seeing his environment differently from me with my long time in that he … What?” Yes, language affects how we think, but the effect is mostly trivial. Overemphasizing its importance fools us into thinking that those who speak a foreign tongue live in another world.

McWhorter is far from the first to suggest that Whorf got it wrong. Even the linguists whose research builds on Whorfian concepts are more nuanced and less wide-eyed than he was. Other critics have pushed back equally hard against language-as-lens, including Steven Pinker, who, in his 1994 book The Language Instinct, writes that the idea is “a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.”

Pinker also touches on what McWhorter calls the “visceral appeal of Whorfianism,” an appeal that journalists in particular struggle to resist. McWhorter calls out reporters who get a bit too excited when they encounter a new language, often one spoken by native people somewhere, and decide that embedded in those strange syllables is a profound, untapped wisdom, something unique and undeniably wonderful. There is a whiff of condescension in such reverence.

“The idea that language is interesting because it shows how diverse we are as souls is neither as inevitable a perspective as it seems nor as automatically benevolent,” McWhorter writes.

Debunking Whorf may make other cultures seem less exotic, humanity more homogeneous, the world not quite as mysterious. But that, McWhorter wants us to accept, is just the way it is. Or as the French would put it, c’est la vie.

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