john_mcwhorter's picture
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Words on the Move
Languages Conditioning Worldviews

Since the 1930s when Benjamin Lee Whorf was mesmerizing audiences with the idea that the Hopi people's language channeled them into a cyclical sense of time, the media and university classrooms have been often abuzz with the idea that the way your language works gives you a particular worldview.

You just want this to be true, but it isn't—at least in a way that anyone would be interested in it outside of a psychology laboratory (or academic journal). It's high time thinking people let go of the idea, ever heralded as a possibility but never actually demonstrated, that different languages represent different ways of experiencing life.

Different cultures represent different ways of experiencing life, to be sure. And part of a culture is having words and expressions to express it, to be sure. Cell phone. Inshallah. Feng shui. But this isn't what Whorfianism, as it is often called, is on to. The idea is that quiet things in a language's very structural architecture—how its grammar works, how its vocabulary happens to cut up space—channel how the speaker experiences life.

And in fact, psychologists have indeed shown that such things do influence thought—in tiny ways elicitable via fascinatingly peculiar experiments. So, Russian has different words for dark and light blue and no one word that just means blue, and it has been shown that Russians are, indeed, 124 milliseconds faster at identifying grades of dark blue to other ones and grades of light blue to other ones. Or, it has been shown that people whose languages divide nouns into masculine and feminine categories are more likely, if asked, to imagine those things talking in the appropriately sexed voice if they were cartoon characters, or to associate them with gendered traits.

This kind of thing is neat—but the question is whether the quiet background flutterings of awareness they document can be treated as a worldview. The temptation is endless to suppose that it does. Plus we are always reminded that no one has said that language prevents a speaker from thinking anything, but rather that it makes it more likely that the speaker will.

But we still run up against the fact that languages tell us what we don't want to hear as much as they tell us what is cool, such as Russian blues and tables talking like ladies.

Example—in Mandarin Chinese, the same sentence can mean If you see my sister, you know she's pregnant, If you saw my sister, you'd know she's pregnant, and If you had seen my sister, you'd have known she was pregnant. That is, Chinese leaves hypotheticality to context much more than English does. In the early eighties, psychologist Alfred Bloom, following the Whorfian line, did an experiment suggesting that Chinese makes its speakers somewhat less adept at processing hypothetical scenarios than English speakers.

Whoops—nobody wanted to hear that. There was long train of rebuttals, ending in an exhausted draw. But there are all kinds of experiments one could do that would lead to the same kind of place. Lots of languages in New Guinea have only one word for eating, drinking, and smoking. Does that make them slightly less sensitive to the culinary than other people? Or, Swedish doesn't have a word for wipe—you have to erase, take off, etc. But who's ready to tell the Swedes they don't wipe?

In cases like this our natural inclination is to say that such things are just accidents, and that whatever wisp of thought difference an experimenter could elicit on their basis hardly has anything to do with what the language's speakers are like—or what their worldview is. But then, we have to admit the same thing about the wisps that happen to tickle our fancies.

What creates a worldview is culture—i.e., a worldview. And no, it won't work to say that culture and language create a worldview together holistically. Remember, that would mean that Chinese speakers are—holistically—a little dim when it comes to thinking beyond reality.

Who wants to go there? Especially when even starting to, decade after decade, leads us down blind alleys? Hopi, it turned out, has plenty of markers of good old-fashioned European-style time. Or, Yale economist Keith Chen's recent idea that not having a future tense makes a language's speaker more thrifty—pause to wrap your head around that: it's not having a future that makes you save money!—has intrigued the media for years now. But if four Slavic languages like Russian and Polish all do not have a future tense, and yet savings rates among their countries are vastly different, then the whole idea is out the window.

The idea that language is a lens on life should be treated as what it is—something that pans out in terms of quiet results in intense psychological studies but has nothing to do with any humanistic perspective on what it means to be a human being. An awkward aspect of this is that people engaged in trying to document or save the hundreds of languages worldwide that are threatened with extinction tend to say the languages must survive because they represent ways of looking at the world. But if they don't, we have to formulate new justifications for those rescue efforts. Hopefully, linguists and anthropologists can embrace saving languages simply because they are, in so many ways, magnificent in their own right?

What it comes down to is this. Let's ask how English makes a worldview. Our answer requires that the worldview be one shared by Betty White, William McKinley, Amy Winehouse, Jerry Seinfeld, Kanye West, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gary Coleman, Virginia Woolf and and Bono.

Let's face it, what worldview would that be? Sure, a lab test could likely tease out some infinitesimal squeak of a perceptive predilection shared by all of those people. But none of us would even begin to think of it as a way of perceiving the world or reflecting a culture. Or, if anyone would, then we are on to an entirely new academic paradigm indeed.