We've Been Told that Different Languages Create Different Worldviews. They Don't.

by John McWhorter | April 27, 2014

photo credit: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

There is solid evidence (see this and this), that bilinguals exhibit different personality traits in different languages. However, it is much more accurate to note that it’s not language that makes people different, but the culture associated with the language. We would not argue, for example, that if someone is more jocular in a clown suit than in a tuxedo, the reason is the clothing. Rather, we would say that those clothes are associated with certain emotions and attitudes. Theoretically, one could be quite the party animal in a cummerbund, and quite the downer while wearing face paint, a red nose, and large shoes.

The philosophy linking individual attributes to language itself took root as a way of validating the intelligence of people once deemed “savages.” When dedicated amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf popularized this theory in the 1930s—preaching that the Hopi’s language had no markers of tense and that this demonstrated their cyclical conception of time (this turned out not to be true)—Webster’s Second New International Dictionary still had an entry for Apaches that described their “warlike disposition and relatively low culture.” 

Despite these good intentions, the mode of thinking Whorf kicked off is flawed. There will always be a temptation to suppose a link between how a language works and the thought patterns of its speakers. One reason for the temptation is obvious: Languages have words and expressions for the things that are important to their speakers. English has words for computer parts. People living on mountainsides are often more likely to say uphill and downhill instead of in front of or behind. The Inuit don’t have hundreds of words for snow, but some have argued that they have more than we do. And no one would consider that a surprise.

But we do not say that English makes us think more about computer parts, or that the Inuit subdivide kinds of snow because it’s in their language. Yet it is this kind of analysis that people who favor the language-as-thought idea espouse. In Russian there’s no one word for blue. You have to specify whether you mean dark or light. And so we are told this means Russians process the difference between the color of a robin’s egg and the color of a blueberry more vividly than English speakers. Or, in many languages, grammar specifies what something is made of: In Chinese and Japanese, for instance, you have to say “a skinny of pencil,” “a round of apple,” and so on. And tests do show that if you strap someone into a clever psychological experiment, they have tiny flickers of sensitivity beyond those of an English speaker.

The problem is this worldview business. None of the evidence suggests, as we are so often told, that speakers of these languages are walking around on different acid trips than the rest of us. Here are three quick reasons why.

1. Telegraphic Languages. Some languages are more telegraphic than others. For an English speaker, to a large extent, learning Mandarin is a matter of learning how much is unnecessary to still communicate effectively. No articles. No way to express the past tense. It’s quite common not to mark things as plural. The first words of the Bible can be rendered as “Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth.” If we are to suppose that this aspect of Mandarin creates a “worldview”—if two blues means Russians see more blue—then can’t we assume that the Chinese aren’t seeing, well, as much as we are? To be sure, no one has said that languages force us to think only in a certain way, just that they make certain ways more likely. But even then, Whorfianism forces us to say to a Chinese speaker that they are a bit of—just a bit of, but still—a dummy.

At this point, we are inclined to decide that how a language works can’t have any significant effect on thought—but then, why are we suddenly inclined otherwise when it’s about seeing blue more vividly or being more attuned to the difference between sticks and round things? A certain incoherence looms with this kind of thinking, in which things are easily turned on their heads, according to how good the proposition happens to make us feel. Economist Keith Chen has recently ventured an idea that the Chinese language’s telegraphic quality makes its speakers think more about the things its language doesn’t mark. His thesis is that Chinese, because it lacks a future marker like will, makes the Chinese save more money, and it has been eaten up with a spoon. Any coherent notion of how language corresponds with worldview has become distinctly elusive here.

2. What About Us? What precisely is the “worldview” from speaking English? What do Mary Tyler Moore, William Jennings Bryan, Harriet Tubman, Helen Mirren, Paul Hogan, me, and Sting have in common that we would call a “worldview”? The question sheds light on the notion of any one language—as opposed to a culture—encoding a “worldview.” It would seem that those people have, or had, quite distinct worldviews, based on their different—wait for it—cultures. The idea that speaking English has given those seven people anything we would call a common “worldview” seems faintly absurd—and leaves it hard to uphold the idea of any other language embodying one.

3. When the “ Worldview” Looks Unpleasant. There are many languages in New Guinea and Australia in which there is one word that means eat, drink, and smoke. Are we to designate these people as less attuned to gustatory pleasures than us? They give little evidence of it, and note how distasteful it feels to even suggest it. Or, Swedish and Danish have no single word for what we call wiping. You can rub, erase, and such, and the word they spontaneously give as a translation means dry—but there is no word that means, specifically, what we mean by to wipe. Yet we shall neither tell Scandinavians that they do not wipe nor even imply that the act is less vividly important to them than to the rest of us.

We can signal our awareness of human equality in other ways. All languages are complex. Nary a one of the several thousand known languages does not allow precise and nuanced conversation. Languages vary in just which squiggles of existence they choose to mark with words and endings, but we must resist the notion that this variation creates different “worldviews,” not only to avoid intellectual incoherence, but also to avoid an unintended continuation of the cultural condescension we all seek to leave behind.

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