January 18, 2014

McWhorter: Language doesn't affect how you think

More Edge questions about what ideas popular in science should be kicked to the curb: linguist John McWhorter attacks a theory on the Nurture side of the Nature-Nurture divide.
John McWhorter 
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Doing Our Own Thing 
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.

There are two closely related ideas here:

1. Thought is affected by language form, such as differences in grammar

2. Thought is affected by language content, most notably differences in vocabulary

Content differences include Franz Boas's famous contention that the Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow. Wikipedia says about Eskimos and snow:
The claim that Eskimo languages have an unusually large number of words for snow is a widespread idea first voiced by Franz Boas and often used as a cliché when writing about how language may keep us more or less alert to the differences of the natural world. In fact, the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word.[1][2]

But English has a large number of words for snow, too, as you'll note during the upcoming Winter Olympics coverage. So it's silly to be surprised that the size of vocabulary of a tiny illiterate culture isn't larger than that of the huge literate culture that produced the Oxford English Dictionary. It would be a more apples to apples comparison to contrast the number of words for snow in an Eskimo language to the number of words for the white stuff on top of Kilimanjaro in the language of a small African tribe.

Most languages appear to be fairly elaborate in form, but languages differ wildly in quantity of content. The Oxford English Dictionaryfor instance, features 600,000 words.

Orwell depicted Newspeak in 1984 as an attempt to reduce vocabulary to conceptually impoverish the subjects of the tyranny: e.g., the Declaration of Independence translates into simply "crimespeak."

For example, in the Edge essays, numerous scientists on the social engineer side of the spectrum rail against the nature - nurture conceptual framework devised by Shakespeare and Galton as something that should be permanently retired. Why? They offer lots of reasons, but a basic reason is that "nature-nurture" makes it easier for citizens to think skeptically about social engineering plans like Obama-Blasio's notion of fighting income inequality with universal pre-K, so junking the phrase "nature and nurture" would help intellectually disarm taxpayers.

McWhorter goes on:
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).

Or as McWhorter later points out, not in ways we're supposed to be interested in, which would seem like very different things, but is increasingly the same thing to modern people as crimestop -- the predilection for feeling bored by potentially subversive trains of thought -- becomes more beaten into contemporary skulls.
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. 
... 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. 

After all, nobody ever noticed that the Chinese tend to be pretty concrete in their thinking compared to, say, the Hindus or the Ancient Greeks. Oh, except that tends to be everybody's impression. (Whether it stems from language or not is another question, and which aspects of language would be involved is a third ...)
Whoops—nobody wanted to hear that.

Kind of a general problem with the human sciences these days: there are lots of things nobody wants to hear.
There was long train of rebuttals, ending in an exhausted draw.

In other words, Bloom's argument apparently wasn't disproved despite strongly motivated attempts to do so. (This doesn't mean it was proven, just that it was still standing after the spirit of the age took its best shots at it.)
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?

Are you implying that Papuan cuisine isn't quite as sophisticated as Italian or Cantonese? That a French sommelier may come equipped with a more sophisticated vocabulary for thinking about wine than a New Guinea highlander?

Nobody wants to hear that!
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.

No, there is an obvious difference between the two examples.
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. 

How do we know? For example, consider ancient Greece's transformation from barely literate in 700 BC to philosophically sophisticated in 350 BC. The Greek vocabulary developed tremendously during this period as you might imagine. Richard Nisbett argued in The Geography of Thought that ancient Greek was peculiarly well-adapted to coining new conceptual words, a role that it continues to play today in the coining of new scientific and technological terms.

Is Nisbett right? This stuff's over my head. But I wouldn't rule it out. If McWhorter's upcoming book demolishes Nisbett's arguments that Japanese speakers seem to be better at seeing the context and English speakers seem to be better at "object oriented" thinking, with Japanese raised in the U.S. in-between, then good for him. But, so far, I'd consider Nisbett's argument viable if unproven.
Remember, that would mean that Chinese speakers are—holistically—a little dim when it comes to thinking beyond reality. 
Who wants to go there?

Phrased conversely, the Chinese tend to be particularly sharp at thinking about current reality, that they seem to devote a higher proportion of their mental horsepower to the palpable here-and-now.
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. ...

A lot of anthropological examples turn out not to be very good since it's so hard to check up on something about some small tribe. Plus, there's the simple brute fact that a lot of languages of small illiterate tribes tend to be conceptually impoverished because the tribesmen don't think abstractly very often, and their brightest intellects who do come up with abstractions can't write them down to communicate them over time to future very bright fellows who would be on their wavelengths. So, the brightest illiterate sages end up playing a game of Telephone with their abstractions, with generally depressing results.

But anthropologists frequently feel the need to gloss over this with highbrow explanations of the tribe's alternative abstractions. (I'm not saying this is the case for the Hopi-Whorf tale in particular. Benjamin Whorf, by the way, was an interesting guy: an MIT chemical engineer who was the top chemical factory fire prevention inspector for a big insurance company, who took occasional breaks to go to Mexico to study indigenous languages. It's hard not to imagine that his death from cancer at age 44 was a real loss to the human sciences because who knows what he would have come up with if he'd lived long enough to turn to linguistics full time.)
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?

I don't know, but I suspect a lot of Frenchmen, much less Japanese, would have an opinion on the subject.

Evelyn Waugh's theory was that English had evolved not to be precise like French (with its limited vocabulary that seems to encourage the French to ring dazzling changes on a fairly distinct set of ways of the Pleasures of Being French -- French radical philosophers tend to be dazzling but oddly conservative: underneath all the novelty is a core conviction that the highest form of life is to live in France, and the highest form of being French is to sit in a sidewalk cafe and philosophize) or thorough like German (with its ability to turn every sentence into giant words, which may encourage German pedantry and profundity), but to sound good, to be a language for poets to weave their spells.
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.

Perhaps we can broaden Waugh's notion to include playwrights, politicians, salesmen, celebrities, rock stars, actors, rappers, comedians, and the like. Which now that I think of it, pretty much covers "Betty White, William McKinley, Amy Winehouse, Jerry Seinfeld, Kanye West, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gary Coleman, Virginia Woolf and and Bono."

To take a more cynical view than Waugh, perhaps English turns out to be the finest language in practice for salesmen and other BS artists to use to infiltrate their ideas into the minds of others, that English is the ideal language for world-domination?
   

108 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Whoops—nobody wanted to hear that."

Hooray for McWhorter, acknowledging that today the human sciences are less about expanding knowledge and more about circumscribing it.

But what Steve will really enjoy is Nina Jablonski's piece on race.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating paper on possible impact of script on thought processes:

"Script and Cognition: The Impact of Orthography on Western and Eastern Patterns of Thought"

http://toqonline.com/archives/v5n3/53-wch-script.pdf

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, English has lost much of its inflectional morphology and is less of an inflectional language than most Indo-European languages and the Proto-Indo-European language. It's consequently relatively more of an analytic language, like Chinese, than the other Indo-European languages.

Anonymous said...

There was a famous Japanese novelist who toured the US in the 80s and wrote a book on his observations. Here's an excerpt where he notes some of the differences between East and West:

http://avery.morrow.name/blog/2013/06/the-beauty-of-unturned-stones/

" I’m a big fan of the sayings of Confucius called the Analects. But what would an American think if you had him read this book?

In a book I read a long time ago, someone offered an American scholar a copy of the Analects, and this is what he said:

“It’s like the talk of an Indian chief!”

When I read that book I belted out a deep laugh. This encapsulates the difference between East and West perfectly.

Let’s translate the famous first line from that first paragraph of the Analects as if an Indian chief were saying it.

“You must learn, children, and review what you have read. That is fun, see.”

Suddenly, in the next line, a different topic entirely: “Friends — those are good. Especially, when a friend is coming to visit you from far away. There is nothing as good as that.”

And then another: “Some people get angry when the world fails to acknowledge them. That is no good. Unemotional and calm under pressure — that is what we call character. Got it?”

In the East, the Analects are like a sacred book. This book was mandatory reading in China from the early centuries B.C.E., and when it came to Japan through Korea in the 5th and 6th centuries, it was treasured.

Here we see none of the logic of Aristotle, and none of the piercing rhetoric of the modern West. To put it bluntly, it’s like a a bunch of anecdotes about an old man, and it’s full of unclear sayings, leaps of logic, and blank spaces. The reader has to figure it out for himself, thinking, “Ah, that’s what he’s talking about, right?”

But you can’t figure it out without guessing and filling in the blanks. The Analects is not carefully argued logic but a collection of brief and broken phrases. In every verse, you can only determine 50% of the meaning from what’s actually written there. The other 50% must be figured out by the reader himself. In other words, there is no reading without guessing.

I don’t know whether this is related to the Analects or not, but Japan is full of these brief and broken phrases, not only in reading ancient texts but also in everyday conversation. You don’t rigorously explain everything you’re thinking to the person you talk with, but have them read your intentions, and you read theirs as well.

Japanese people don’t like to argue. Even in the courtroom, laying out cold, precise logic to make your conversation partner fall to his feet and beg for forgiveness invites them to form a grudge, so it can only cause trouble later. So when we negotiate, we speak in brief and broken phrases like an Indian, and add a quiet little smile for breathing room. Someone who can do this well in Japan is said to have character or even worth, but a longtime foreign correspondent once warned me drunkenly over beer, “if you pulled that in America, they’d call you an idiot!”

Fair enough: in Japan, if you attempted to demonstrate the strength of your opinion using endless layers of logic, you’d be the idiot! The listener already understands what you’re trying to prove."

Anonymous said...

Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of the long established psychology behind how language effects thought will rightly laugh McWhorter out of the room. This guy's book has a simple Marxist agenda written all over it (culture has no effect on thought - it's the ideological sister of blank slatism). He makes a mockery of his field by utilizing his racially privileged position at an Ivy to expel his research bereft masqueraded-as-theory ideology all over the field.

You're vastly over-stepping your field of expertise, John. You aren't a psychologist nor can you lay claim to any foundational linguistic theory. Do you know how I know that you are bullshitting? I'm a linguist. I know what your education entailed. I read the same books as do you and have taken all of the coursework that you have. You're background doesn't come close to giving you the academic authority to state your claim plausibly. Without that, you need to have done the research. Where is it? Non-existent you say? Okay.

I suggest you start with Korzybski's "Science and Sanity" as a primer, and then we can go from there. Language is the very substrate of thought. It's structure, and limitations, both give thought form and constrain it. Languages widely vary in their structure and limitations. A simple comparison of the structure of the English and Mandarin languages and the respective structure of the thought processes of those populations will lead to the obvious conclusion that the structure of language strongly influences thought. You have never had a thought in your life that wasn't dependent on the language available to you. It is the map.

McWhorter has simply gotten used to people taking his idea-toys (check out his unsupported theory on an island people's language evolving due to subjugation - it's pure conjecture but it's what has ostensibly given him legitimacy and a measure of academic fame) and not calling him out on them. He sees that he can get away with nonsense, and so he's pushing the envelope. It's all ego combined with wishful, racially motivated political hucksterism. His book will be grounded in emotion and little else of substance.

Anonymous said...

"Twitter Explodes After Trans Subject of Golf Article Kills Herself"

gawker.com/twitter-explodes-after-trans-subject-of-golf-article-ki-1504164978

"[W]hat ultimately made this piece "the strangest" story he's worked on is that is investigation revealed that Dr. V was a trans woman, born with male sex organs, a discovery that gave Hannan "a chill that ran up [his] spine." Halfway through the story, his focus stops being that of a work of sports journalism and becomes—in his words—"the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself."

At the very end of the piece, after writing of the push-back he received when disclosing to Dr. V that he was to out her in the article (an act deemed by Dr. V to be a "hate crime") Hannan writes that she killed herself—almost as an afterthought.

At first, Hannan was receiving praise left and right for his piece, with fans applauding his reporting and the crazy nature of the story....

But it wasn't long before writers and editors started to raise questions about the morality of Hannan's story. Why was the gender of the subject suddenly made the focus of a sports story? Did writing this story "drive" Dr. V to suicide?....

And trans activists and writers were in an uproar over Hannan outing Vanderbilt and it being praised as journalism. On many blogs like Shakesville and personal Tumblrs, writers outlined at length the moral problems and the transphobia evident in Hannan's piece and called out the culture surrounding its defense."

Cail Corishev said...

"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."

That's as stupid as the people who say race doesn't exist because Tiger Woods. To say that English has a certain effect on one's worldview, which might be distinguishable on a group level from the effect that some other language has on its speakers, is not to claim that all English speakers share the same views.

I only know two languages and a smattering of a few others, but it's obvious to me that different languages encourage different ways of thinking and communicating. Latin was taught in schools long after it had any practical use, because it encouraged structured, orderly thinking. Anyone want to claim that we haven't lost ground on the ability to think in a structured and logical way since dropping it?

English (my first language) strikes me as a particularly good language for just getting stuff done. It's not great for precisely communicating ideas -- much mischief has been caused by translating the Bible into English, where it's much easier for people to invent bad interpretations than it was in earlier languages -- but it's great for day-to-day communicating without a lot of fuss. My language teacher said English was the easiest language to become functionally literate in -- once you know what most things are called, you can make yourself understood even if your grammar is horrible. But that means that learning English just teaches you English -- it doesn't instill much else, like a structured approach to breaking down concepts and finding the logical connections between things.

hbd chick said...

"Language doesn't affect how you think"

my guess is that how people(s) think affects language, but no one seems to be interested in investigating that possbility.

Anonymous said...

"my guess is that how people(s) think affects language, but no one seems to be interested in investigating that possbility." - yep, Arrow of causality goes the other way.

Thomas O. Meehan said...

I read somewhere that Orwell's inspiration for the deliberate word-poverty of Newspeak from a very real writing guide promulgated by the British authorities during World War II. If I remember correctly, he was involved in, or knew about, British war propaganda writing manuals which sought to limit the number of words employed in messaging of all kinds. The propagandists wanted all communication targeted to match the limited literacy of it's audience. A word list was drawn up that was in the hundreds, rather than thousands of words. It was weighted with simple, Anglo-Saxon words that could be strung together to form larger concepts without the use of complex terms which carried nuance.

It was this barbarism of language in the service of government that horrified Orwell and made him aware of the ability of systems to channel the thought patterns of populations.

This is not to say that Orwell was not aware of Communist pollution of language. It does lay the dumbing down of language in Britain in the first instance, on the doorstep of the emerging Labor Government.

spandrell said...

While the monolinguals, linguist or not, go on theorizing without the slightest clue of how different grammars structure your thought, I'll give my two cents.

It's a chicken and egg thing. Are the Chinese down-to-earth because Mandarin has little syntax for hypotheticals? Or they never developed the syntax because their genetic neurology is just not keen on making up hypothetical situations?

I think it's mostly the latter, they can but they just don't. I have no trouble uttering hypotheticals in Mandarin, and often do. People look at me strangely, as it just sounds weird. Why would you think of it that way? But it's not like the sentence itself it's ungrammatical. It's just odd.

Anonymous said...

A word list was drawn up that was in the hundreds, rather than thousands of words. It was weighted with simple, Anglo-Saxon words that could be strung together to form larger concepts without the use of complex terms which carried nuance.

It was this barbarism of language in the service of government that horrified Orwell and made him aware of the ability of systems to channel the thought patterns of populations.


This would make the resulting vocabulary more Germanic and less Latin. I don't see why this would be a "barbarism of language". The Germans do fine with their language.

spandrell said...

Btw the dude is an expert in Ebonics so obviously he has an axe to grind.

But it would be in his interest to say that it's Ebonics which is limiting Blacks' cognitive potential, not that Ebonics sounds retarded because Blacks can't come up with anything better.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No anonymous 12:37, it is thee who should be laughed out of the room. What you offer are theories of what would be really, cool, neat, see, so it must be true.

Except there is no data to support any of it. McWhorter is spot-on 100% correct. People keep getting into side trails, thinking that this must really be about whether western civilisation is better, or whether academics know more than the rubes, or a dozen other irrelevant issues.

Start with the basics: there is no evidence that Whorf is more than 1% true on this topic (though he wasn't bad at some other things). Some strains of conservatism and liberalism both want Whorf to be correct, for differing reasons, but...

THERE JUST ISN'T ANY EVIDENCE. Got it?

Glossy said...

I think that language reflects the mind, not the other way around. In other words, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is wrong. I doubt very, very much that learning French can make the average German more sensuous or that learning German can make the average Frenchman more serious or disciplined.

The English have a great talent for humor, yet I know that learning English (it's not my native language) hasn't made me any funnier. The best English-language writers who aren't physically English don't normally use most of the subtle and complex machinery of language that the best English English writers (I'm thinking of people like Wodehouse, Waugh, K. Amis) used to make their works funny. This is also noticeable among stand-up comedians. If you speak a language that your ancestors didn't create, you're not going to use those of its resources that don't answer any of your internal needs. And if you have internal needs that the language's creators lacked, you're going to find a way to express them in their language anyway. People do that all the time. Think of what rappers have done to English.

McWhorter: "And in fact, psychologists have indeed shown"

It's disappointing to see a linguist express himself like that in a mass publication.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Semantics. What is or isn't a 'world-view'? It's not even an scientific idea.

As McWhorter defines 'world-view', he's probably right in a general sense.
But does 'world-view' necessarily have to be so macro-oriented?
Couldn't one argue that a world-view could be humble, local, and even personal? And aren't even big things made up of small things?
A rapper in some inner city ghetto may not be interested in the world outside rap culture and his hood, but he does have a 'world-view' of sorts and it probably has something to do with the way he talks. If he starts talking like an English gentleman, the whole rap 'world-view' is gonna collapse.
Indeed, we only have to look at dialects within a language to see how different ways of speaking have a profound impact on the FEELING of language, and FEELINGS will affect how people think. Though Ebonics can be used to figure out physics problems or solve logical puzzles, someone speaking dat sort of jiveass mofo punkass shit is probably not in the mood to be sober and serious about dealing with the higher matters of life.
The number of dialects in English itself shows that there is no one way to speak or use a language, but it may be true that certain languages tend to produce one kinds of emotions while another kind produce another kind. I always thought Japanese are sort of rigid in the way they think and do things cuz their ran-gu-a-gee izu so stiruteedo(stilted). Domo arigato, mistah roboto.

Also, even if language doesn't determine a worldview, might it still not color a worldview? It's like a tinted glass will not distort the shape and the form of the world, but it will alter the color of the world.

Also, McWhorter sort of falls into his own trap. The concept of 'world-view' is Euro-centric, particularly because so much of Western thought/language in the past 500 yrs developed in relation to exploring, mapping, and making sense of the world.

But what is the meaning of 'world-view' to a primitive jungle tribe whose entire 'world' is a patch of trees and rivers in which they forage for fish and food. An idea such as 'world-view' would be totally alien to them. Their 'world' would be the little domain they live in. They would have no concept or interest in the 'world' outside their little world.

So, language developed in relation to experience and development.
If we ditched English and adopted some Amazonian tribal language to express ourselves, there would be lots of things we wouldn't be able to express--unless we change the language considerably to fit modern needs.

Languages do evolve like math. All math, simple and complex, are related and rooted in same principles, but some math problems require more symbols and more complex formulations.

Anonymous said...

After the Norman invasion in 1066 French became the language of the court. When the aristocracy wanted to restore English they found that they could not deal with existing complicated concepts in law and science without importing many Latin words into English. There was substantial resistance, but those words were importrd. That certainly seems to imply that using a limited language today would result in difficulty with complicated concepts. McWhorter certainly knows this.
Robert Hume

Anonymous said...

It's very plausible that different linguistic structures emphasize different forms of thought. There is a lot of research on this. There's also an interesting piece of research showing that tonal languages only occur in populations that do not have a genetic mutation for tone deafness, which occurs at a rate of about 5% in European or Caucasian populations. The only Indo-European languages that are tonal are ancient Greek and modern-day Punjabi. This is the only example I know of, of genes influencing the development of of different languages in different ways. However it also seems plausible that genes could Influence the development of the forms and structure of language in such a way that these structures reflect the thinking of their speakers. In other words, the research in this area maybe getting because and effect reversed.

Anonymous said...

Phrased alternatively, the Chinese tend to be particularly sharp at thinking about current reality, that they seem to devote a higher proportion of their mental horsepower to the palpable here-and-now.

China has had a high population density and a civilization for a very long time. Labor is cheap there. Corruption is also in their nature and culture. They are famous for building relationships of trust with people that evolve into mutual back scratching arrangements.

Because of the population density and the number of people involved in an enterprise due to the cheapness of labor, it is very difficult to keep a secret in China. Because of the relationship networks, there are ready paths for transferring secrets. All these things conspire to punish those for whom original thought is their only advantage, because their inventions are essentially wasted effort.

This might be one explanation for the "here and now" emphasis of the Chinese mind. Another is of course, the language. Chinese language especially is composed of nothing but Chinese characters. Because each Chinese character has meaning and a reading, the language does not lend itself to borrowing words from other languages as English does.

English has evolved, borg-like, by incorporating useful elements of other languages into itself. Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Latin, Old Norse, French, you name it, English has incorporated the interesting bits from it, and continues to do so easily. In that respect it is something of a continuously evolving world language, a language that refuses to be moribund.

So perhaps there is this difference between the mental vocabulary of an English speaker vs a Chinese speaker. To some extent these ways of thinking may be hard coded genetically now. Consider the disadvantages of illiteracy in either culture, and the abilities that literacy in either language requires.

Chinese requires improved visuospatial ability to memorize and identify the myriad Chinese characters. Their system of characters has been around for more than 4000 years it appears. English doesn't have this requirement, but one still needs to know how letters combine and be able to combine words effectively. Maybe it is this out-sized requirement of Chinese language ability that both is the cause of this present-focus and visuospatial ability in the Chinese and other East Asians who have adopted their Chinese characters, and which also has concommitant weaknesses due to specialization in areas that British and Europeans in general are stronger.

Jon said...

Language can be used to constrain thought or can do so organically. One of many examples is the nominalisation, where a dynamic is rendered with a noun (e. g., "gravity"). At some level we think of it as a thing rather than something moving toward something else more massive or a more massive thing drawing another thing toward it. Intuitively, it seems to me that we can be manipulated in some way by language tending to nominalisation. Precise markers for abstraction level would make talking empty bullshit whilst sounding pseudo-profound more difficult and prose more clear and defined.

Anonymous said...

http://www.pnas.org/content/104/26/10944

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=genetic-basis-tonal-language&print=true

A Genetic Basis for Language Tones?
Scottish scientists uncover a striking link between genes for brain size and tonality in spoken language

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Italians are slick and oily cuz Italian has a lot of 'i' endings.

Take out the 'o's in Spanish and it sounds so different.

golubok said...

Russian has different words for dark and light blue and no one word that just means blue

This is factually incorrect. Russian has has different single words for light and regular blue and two words for dark blue. 124 milliseconds faster at identifying grades of dark blue is an absolutely implausibly large number that can only come from a bullshit study.

McWhorter is in denial. It is almost certain that language influences thoughts. The effect might not be very strong (in a sense of being decisive in comparison to other things) but it is silly to deny its existence.

Anonymous said...

Every language has its own 'music'. Its own rhythmic patterns, meter, beat, and etc.

Just as different forms of music do affect our world-vision if not 'world-view'--which can mean so many things--, different forms of languages surely affect how we 'feel' the world.

I'm bilingual, and even when I say the say thing in the two languages, they feel differently, and meanings are as much about feeling as about concrete things.

Anonymous said...

It's a chicken and egg thing. Are the Chinese down-to-earth because Mandarin has little syntax for hypotheticals? Or they never developed the syntax because their genetic neurology is just not keen on making up hypothetical situations?

What about Koreans and Japanese? They're genetically similar to Chinese but their languages are quite different.

Anonymous said...

How about we test McWhorter's theory by creating a language of our own?

We'll call it Gibberese.

Basic vocab:

I: wagoolunkuh

and: humhumraga

you: yugyugoogahugh

is/am/are: wowowopoongah

hungry: ooooooogggaaaah

want: hoohoogaga

hamburger: googahyumyuk

but: yakyakragunga

money: ahahgoogoowankah

stolen: eekgollawalah

by: umwagakanga

Negro: bongowongomofopunkoassongo

-----

So, we try to say in Gibberese:

"We are hungry and want a hamburger but the money was stolen by a Negro."

wagoolunkuh humhumraga yugyugoogahugh wowowopoongah ooooooogggaaaah hoohoogaga googahyumyuk yakyakragunga ahahgoogoowankah eekgollawalah umwagakanga bongowongomofopunkoassongo

Would the use of such language shape our 'world-view'?

igooukmeetahgulikabuli

(Gibberse for 'maybe')

Anonymous said...

Yiddish shape worldview?

Only a putz would say so.

Steve Sailer said...

Yiddish is the world's most developed language for the art of demeaning other people's intelligence.

Cause or effect? Nature or nurture?

a very knowing American said...

Does the language you speak influence how you think? McWhorter takes the glass-half-empty side of the argument, and so does Steve Pinker when he writes on the topic. For a high quality popularization of the glass-half-full side of the argument, try "Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages," by Guy Deutscher. Some of the most impressive stuff here (to me anyway) relates to language and space. In some languages you can't say "The fork is left of the plate" or "The chair is in front of the table." You HAVE to use cardinal directions, "North," or "toward Mount X," so you need to have a strong grasp of directions at all times to communicate anything about objects in space. (Quick, is the screen you're reading this on North, South, East or West of you?) I don't see much of an h-bd angle here: genetically similar populations, in Central America, for example, may use different varieties of spatial language.

David said...

Both of the following propositions, for which we do have evidence, could be true:

1. Language affects thought (e.g., restriction of language impedes thought);

and

2. Thought affects language (i.e., it determines the creation/use of a language).

These propositions don't contradict each other. An analogy showing this is that 1. starving decreases appetite while 2. eating increases it. So the "causality arrow" here can run both ways.

More broadly, isn't this year's Edge question problematic? Inviting people to nominate ideas for junking or banning is inviting them to be censorious. I suppose it had some value, thought, because it certainly has uncovered a few anti-scientists among the respondents.

Anonymous said...

"Evelyn Waugh's theory was that English had evolved not to be precise like French (with its limited vocabulary...) but to sound good..."

I would say the opposite. While English does sound pretty good--and can sound ever better depending on how it's spoken--, it's not intrinsically a fancy language. English as English is rather plain. French, even when plainspoken, is rather fancy and stylized.

But the basic lack of style in English opens it up to greater stylistic variations and flexibility(this is especially true with American English). French is sauce, English is bread. Bread can be sauced with anything, whereas sauce, especially if strong, tends to suppress other flavors.

Maybe, English has more vocabulary because its development was more demotic--even in class-based England--whereas the development of French was controlled by the officialdom of the centralized state, monarchic or secular.

Also, English, being a plainer language, emphasized clarity and precision(contrary to what Waugh said) more than French did. English made room for more words because more words meant clearer distinctions among them.

French, in contrast, often obfuscated distinctions with style. French can make nonsense sound like sense. It can even make idiocy sound 'intelligent'. Surely, only the French could have taken something as imbecile as Maoism and turned it into a grand intellectual theory(by the way of Althusser). Try to do that in English with its clearer sense of distinctions and meanings, and one would come across as a fool.



David said...

>Yiddish is the world's most developed language for the art of demeaning other people's intelligence.<

I've heard that English has more words relating to swindling than any other language; and that Russian is the richest in general-purpose invective.

Anonymous said...

"Russian has different words for dark and light blue and no one word that just means blue"

Doesn't matter. After downing a bottle of vodka, Russians can't tell which color is which, let alone what is what.

Anonymous said...

Why is McWhorter opposed to teaching Ebonics? Who's to say those using it won't think as seriously and clearly as those using proper English?

Anonymous said...

"U.S. and Mexico could be connected by multi-billion-dollar high speed train within FOUR YEARS taking passengers from San Antonio to Monterrey"

" Route would link San Antonio, Texas, to Monterrey, Mexico
300 mile trip could be completed in under two hours
High-speed link would slash journey time from five hours by car
Mexico estimates its share of the cost for the project will be around $1.5bn
Construction set to begin first half of 2015 and completed by 2018
Project would provide huge economic boost to regions north and south of the border"

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541101/U-S-Mexico-connected-XX-billion-high-speed-train-FOUR-YEARS-taking-passengers-San-Antonio-Monterrey.html

Glossy said...

"You HAVE to use cardinal directions, "North," or "toward Mount X," so you need to have a strong grasp of directions at all times to communicate anything about objects in space. (Quick, is the screen you're reading this on North, South, East or West of you?)"

I've read that this is true in some Australian Aborigine languages. I doubt it's much more widespread than that.

On this note:

I've worked in Manhattan for almost 15 years and I went to college there before that. While on its streets I'm almost always aware of where north, south, east and west are. I think that's typical of non-tourists. It's not just because of the grid. The skyscrapers serve as markers. If you're on 23rd and need to go to 38th, look around you. If you see the WTC, then you know that's where downtown (the south) is. You need to walk away from it. Dozens of other skyscrapers function the same way.

And yes, I know that downtown isn't exactly south and that the East Side isn't exactly due east. I bet I'm still beating Aborigines on accuracy though.

Ali said...

Al-Biruni (the Muslim polymath who measured the circumference of the globe in the 11th century) thought along the same lines as Nisbett.

He reckoned the Hindus of India had copied various ideas from the Greeks (such as their pantheon of gods and the Pythagorean concept of transmigration) but not progressed as well as they had done due to their use of Sanskrit as their language. It lacked the precision and exactness of ancient Greek and thus held back the development of natural philosophy.

Anonymous said...

This -ism or that -ism, there is always a neo -ism that can revise or improve on the first one.

So, the idea of wholesale retirement of an entire idea is foolish.

Neo-Malthusianism can improve on the old one with new understandings and insights.

Indeed, even the Darwinism we know today is a form of neo-Darwinism.

Anonymous said...

" I have no trouble uttering hypotheticals in Mandarin, and often do."

Give us an example or two.

Anonymous said...

I think it's as much the other way around. Once a culture is formed, those who can't thrive in that culture will not have high reproductive success. Those who can't think legalistically will not produce many offspring in a culture where Talmudic expertise is prized, and where such expertise is sought in a suitable son-in-law. Those who are tone deaf probably won't have much reproductive success in a society where tone deafness is a serious handicap to being able to understand other people.

In a few generations the genes will come to reflect the proficiencies that are essential to surviving the culture. And even after an individual emigrates from that culture, those innate genetic proficiencies remain. Jews who can't speak a lick of Yiddish or Hebrew find themselves naturally migrating to law and other areas where their verbal strengths are a good match.

David said...

Is McWhorter monolingual?

Anonymous said...

"English turns out to be the finest language in practice for salesmen and other BS artists to use to infiltrate their ideas into the minds of others, that English is the ideal language for world-domination?"

Did English take on such a character because the Anglosphere came to dominate the world, or did the Anglosphere come to dominate the world because English had such a character?

If the English had been situated in geographical Germany and if Germans had occupied the British Isles, would Germans have dominated the world and adapted the character of German to facilitate world domination? Or, due to limitations of German as a language, would Germans not been able to create a global Germano-sphere? (I heard that early Americans voted on whether to use English or German as the defacto official language after the Revolutionary War. I wonder how America might have been different as a German-speaking nation.)

Suppose the Spanish Armada had totally crushed the English navy. Would Spanish have developed into the global language of choice?

Before Anglos gained world supremacy, did they develop qualities and characteristics within Britain that readied them for world domination?

Amy Chua in her book on superpowers--haven't read it but saw a youtube interview--says one of the hallmarks of superpowerism is 'diversity'. Not 'diversity' in the PC sense but in the sense that the superpower allows diverse groups feel that they enjoy a degree of freedom/opportunity and have a stake in the system. Thus, Romans allowed non-Romans to become citizens if they complied with the Roman way(and maybe spoke Latin).

Maybe something about English--its relative plainness--made diverse classes in England feel more involved in the social, economic, and political affairs of the state. Though there were upper classes and lower classes, even the lowers got some representation. It was a nation of shopkeepers than just lords and servants. The idea of middle class is bland, and maybe it has something to do with the blandness of English that made it more tolerant of different folks.

And maybe this cultural development readied the British to work better overseas in a world of diversity. Just as upper crust in UK kept the social barriers but offered the lower folks a stake in society--as shopkeepers and voters--, maybe the British imperialists had the attitude and temperament that made other peoples feel they had a stake under Anglo rule.

Also, maybe the cultural blandness of the British also made them more tolerant of others and less exotic-seeming to non-Brits. Brits didn't come with funny-smelling cheese or weird customs but rather simple--if dignified--manners and ways and foods. They were odorless and flavorless. They could smell the stink of others, but others couldn't smell the Brits. They could be 'invisible' culturally.

Anonymous said...

So, if a subject of French colonialism had to partake of French culture to be part of French empire, a subject of British colonialism could speak English and still keep his own culture. As the saying goes, Brits were racially more intolerant but culturally more tolerant.

And if we compare black American music with Latin black music, the latter is spicier and saucier whereas stuff like blues, rock n roll, and soul are more 'straight from the heart or balls or butt)'. Good or bad, like it or not, it has an elemental value lacking in Latin culture with its razzle dazzle. After all, Latin music is called Salsa but American black music is just called 'soul'.

Cuz Brit culture was more bland and less flavorful, it might have been easier for non-Brits to adapt to British culture, and in the end, for Brits to adapt to non-British culture, as with the Rolling Stones.

The French can intellectually appreciate jazz and American movies, but there's always a barrier of Frenchness between their appreciation and their practice of other cultures.

There may be less of such a barrier for the Brits and especially among the Anglo-Americans who are truly bland.
And indeed, it was when Jews adopted American English that they became truly the modern Jews who were open to everything.

Glossy said...

"Maybe, English has more vocabulary..."

English does not have more vocabulary than other first-world languages. Yes, a lot of money and aspiness was put into the OED, but that has little to do with the size of the vocabulary of the living English language. I think that the largest Dutch dictionary is about the same size, and for the same reasons (i.e. money and aspiness).

For starters, you can pad out dictionaries with scientific terms. There are millions of named chemical compounds and insect species, for example. Where do you draw the line? You can also trawl the history of your language for archaic words that no one has used in many centuries. There is A LOT of that in the OED.

I've read books in English, Russian, French, German and Spanish. Have I noticed much of a difference in vocabulary size among the top writers in those languages? No. Sure, I'd expect every one of those languages to have a richer vocabulary than Nahuatl or Dayak, but that's a different topic.

"Also, English, being a plainer language, emphasized clarity and precision(contrary to what Waugh said) more than French did."

The French have maintained for centuries that their language is the clearest one of all. At one time (this time happened to coincide with the period of French cultural dominance in Europe) this was widely believed outside of France too.

My opinion? Anyone who is capable of and willing to write clearly and logically can achieve that goal in any first-world language. Language is just a reflection of the mind. It's a very flexible tool. So no, I don't think that English is more conducive to clarity than French or vice versa.

" because its development was more demotic--even in class-based England--whereas the development of French was controlled by the officialdom of the centralized state, monarchic or secular. "

English is the only important language in the world that is not run by some organization. I would guess that all of the other top 50 (or maybe even top 100?) of the world's languages, in terms of the number of speakers, are governed by somebody, usually by a branch of the local government.

I've always wondered why English became an exception to that rule. No idea. It clearly has nothing to do with egalitarianism or love of freedom. The most egalitarian, freedom-loving people on Earth are obviously Scandies, and all of their languages are run by central authorities. Same for the Dutch language.

The impact of lawlessness on English has clearly been negative. Spelling Bees are unthinkable in Russian, for example. I haven't heard of them in French, German, Spanish or Italian either, though I won't guarantee that they don't exist. I'd be surprised if they do though.

Where language academies have existed (i.e. almost everywhere), they've kept spelling either reasonably close to pronunciation or at least somewhat predictable. Yes, French spelling is complex, but it's many, many times more logical than English spelling. And most European languages beat French on that score.

Baloo said...

FWIW, I tend to agree with the position that language affects thought, but only slightly and trivially, and that thought affects language a lot more. I'd like to hear more from the anonymous linguist, though. My knee jerk is that the ideology that language shapes thought fits nicely with leftist environmental thinking. Here's something on the subject from awhile back:
"Heesh"? — Sheesh!

H. Dumpty said...

The question is which is to be master—you or the words. That’s all.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"I've heard...my teacher used to say...there's this theory...it's obvious to me...it strikes me...I think..."

And lot's of claims of why McWhorter must be wrong, without showing that he actually is, or pointing out that English does deal with more complicated subjects, so therefore the other languages must be incapable of that and keeping people stupid.

Like I said - no evidence. Any language can be made complex enough over time. There is no demonstrated evidence that one's language channels how one thinks in any meaningful way. People's feeling that "yeah, it does, because French people aren't Chinese, so it must be the language" are just feelings.

Just stunning ignorance here.

James Kabala said...

Anonymous from 1:10: I think English could easily have developed complicated non-French, non-Latin, non-Greek terminology - it did so in the Old English period (Anglo-Saxon authors could take with ease about complicated theological concepts). The blending of Germanic and Romance words in English happened more or less haphazardly rather than systematically as you imply.

There have been a number of movements since that time to create a pure English. They created words that could have been perfectly serviceable in an alternate universe ("starlore" for "astronomy", "tonesmith" for "composer," etc.), but in the real universe it was too late.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_purism_in_English

Thomas O. Meehan: Yet oddly, Orwell himself was generally for a simple Germanic vocabulary and against overuse of Latinate words.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Maybe the nature of English lingo affected Anglo ways that came to dominate the world through neo-universalist appeal.

The feature of English language is Plainness and Dignity/Sturdiness.

If someone were only plain, it would be boring. But if it's plain but still manages to be striking or 'cool', it has appeal. It's like APPLE products. They look simple but also elegant and cool than boring and dull.

Niall Ferguson the neocon whore in his CIVILIZATION series devoted lots of time to English suits and American blue-jeans and their huge impact on the world. Europe(especially Italy and France) had been coming up with all kinds of fancy attire, but it was the Brits who came up with the three-piece suit that seemed both plain and handsome. It looked proper and trim but without the pomp and show-off-iness that easily became outdated and out of fashion(and strange-seeming to outsiders). Today, nearly all business folks around the world wear such suits, and its appeal never seems to go away.
And Americans(or Jewish-American)came up with the Levi blue jeans. It was simple and plain.. but also appealing as something tough, solid, and 'real'. It also had universal appeal that never seems to fade.

When we compare the Mexican sombrero with the American cowboy hat, we can see the differences in cultural outlook. Mexicans, even poor beaners, had to put on extra-stuff to make them look 'special' when they only looked comical like the Three Amigos. In contrast, the American cowboy pared down things to essentials.

Also, there is boring and dreary essentialism like communist Mao suits and sturdy/appealing essentialism like the American cowboy outfit. It keeps everything that looks cool and loses everything that looks fool.

Anonymous said...

"FWIW, I tend to agree with the position that language affects thought, but only slightly and trivially"

Here's the thing. Most thoughts are not logical, rational, or scientific like formal logic or mathematics. They are matters of opinions, personality, and personal views.

Most of the time, we don't use language to make sense or deal with facts and logic but to 'express ourselves' with emotional coloring. So, the feel of language matters a great deal.

When I 'think' something in English and then the same thing in another language, I feel like I'm switching from mental universes.

Maybe McWhorter feels less of this since maybe he has cooler emotions and uses language primarily to think logically. Also, he seems to have studied other languages for their structures than for the feelings they elicit and provoke.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Maybe English language/culture is better suited to dominate the world, but paradoxically, maybe it's also true that those who conquer, dominate, and adapt the best may also be most easily conquered, dominated, and adapted into.

And we can see this in UK and US today. US and UK are at the top of the global power, and yet no empire has been more penetrated and conquered by outsiders than the Anglo-American one. US is dominated by globalist Jews and UK isn't much different. Both seem defenseless against hordes of immigrants. Mexicans bitch about gringo but easily come to the US, learn English, and conquer much of America. Maybe only the Romans so easily conquered and were conquered by other races.

In contrast, Russianness and Chineseness have been less exportable, but on the plus side, Russia is still ruled by Russians and China is still ruled by Chinese. And even the much maligned Germany(due to WWII) is still ruled by Germans.

Those who take the most are also taken the most. It's like the game of GO. More you penetrate and encircle your enemy, the more your enemy has the chance to penetrate and encircle you.

Thus, Anglosphere domination means Anglos won the most but also lost the most. Today, they seem to be winning by losing.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

McWorthless says language may have some impact on little bitty insignificant things but such cannot be called a 'world-view'.

Maybe so, but in our high-stakes world where even small differences can make all the difference in who's right or wrong, who's winner or loser, isn't McWart being kind of disingenuous?
The worldview in a movie like HER seems to be based on seeming trivialities(but they sure mean a lot to the characters involved).

Among the SWPL elites, a small detail of dress, manner, ideology, agenda, attitude, style, and etc. can mark the person as an insider-winner or outsider-loser.

We are living in a world where a person who rejects 'gay marriage' is denounced as an evil wicked witch who needs to be burned at the stake. We are living in a world where US and EU wage WWG on Russia cuz... it won't allow 'gay pride parades'.

Academic elites bitch endlessly about MICRO-aggressions, implying that we may well be 'racist' even if we take all precautions not to be. Maybe just one wrong glance means that, deep down inside, we are KKK!!!

So, in a world where small or slight differences make all the difference, world-views are not what they used to be. They used to mean big macro-things. Today, it could mean that if you say one wrong thing about homos--even calling them 'homo' instead of 'gay' can get you fired--, your worldview is evil and wicked and you must be blacklisted.

Thus, even if language affects our world-view just slightly, it could mean the difference between whether our 'worldview' is wonderful and progressive OR evil and 'racist'.

Anonymous said...

British war propaganda writing manuals which sought to limit the number of words employed in messaging of all kinds.

Both the British and the US used simplified limited vocabulary English in manuals intended for non-English speaking allies. The idea was that you could train non-English speaking troops a few thousand words and have them effectively literate in some English subset general enough to cover most anything. There had previously been a bit of universal peace through universal language thought that fed into the development of English-subset languages designed for ease of learning.

Some of these languages are still around. For instance, there is a version of the wikipedia in "Simple English".
Simple English is apparently a follow-on to Basic English, invented by Ogden, which was the inspiration for Orwell's Newspeak.

The aviation world uses Simplified Technical English.

The Caterpillar company for awhile used Caterpillar Fundamental English.

There are a couple of subset-English things called Globish.

There is a modern effort to write laws in Plain English.


I think, due to it's history as a trade language, English is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn to speak real badly and yet be understood. Even when everyone speaks English poorly in a modern multinational, the basic ideas come through. Maybe there are other languages that would be better, but most languages seem to have complicated genders and tenses that need to be learned and almost seemed designed as in-group markers.

Of course, in the modern setting where you have large groups of non-native English speakers with different native languages themselves, it helps to have fluent English speakers who can somehow interpolate/interpret someone's really bad English for some other weak English speaker.

Steve Sailer said...

In Heinlein's sci-fi novels, the space cadets and interstellar soldiers typically speak "System Basic" or some other simplified universal language, which is presumably translated back into 20th Century English for us by the author.

[Spoiler Alert]

On the next to last page of Starship Troopers, for instance, we discover that the narrator speaks Tagalog back home in Manila.

Heinlein was an enthusiast in the "General Semantics" movement.

john sager said...

And Heinlein's wife had this wealthy guy's wife thing of picking up foreign languages. She learned quite a few.

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

Is McWhorther being honest or disingenuous? I think he's consciously honest but subconsciously disingenuous. He's being earnest but within the context and as an agent of a very devious/dishonest system.

McWhorther wrote a piece some time ago saying that he's not much bothered by the extinction of many world languages. To some extent, he seems to see languages as artificial barriers to human understanding and communication around the world. There seems to be an element of Esperanto-ism in his view. Like Chomsky, he's less interested in lingo differences than lingo commonalities. If indeed all lingos are essentially the same and have no impact on 'worldview', then there's no real loss if the world only knew or spoke the same language. We might as well say all languages are English but just sounds differently. So, how about all of us speak the English that sounds like English?

This is a rather interesting development in 'progressive' thought. In the past, Chomsky notwithstanding, it was the progs rooted in anthropologism that bewailed the globalization, McDonaldization(and McWortherization?), standardization, uniform-ization, and etc of the world. They said peoples/cultures of the world had to be protected and saved from American capitalism/neo-imperialism that sought to turn everything into blue-jeans, consumer culture, and coca cola.

So, it's rather odd that the 'progressive' community have had a change of tune. They are now on the side of globalism, standardization, uniformism, spreading the western ideological gospel-ism, and etc.
Why the change? Could it be that they are now in control of Western globalism? In the past, the left saw American power as 'rightwing' capitalism-imperialism in action. But all those boomer 'progressives' took over the system. So, more globalist American power means more power to the 'left'. More 'free trade' means more money in their coffers. More ideological standardization means the supremacy of the Western neo-'left' that push gayday than mayday. Similarly, the Left that used to be so obsessed with free speech during the 50s and 60s have since come around to saying speech controls are necessary. Why? They are in power, and speech controls means they are have control of speech.

Just like Dawkins argument sounds 'leftist' but sounds a bit 'neo-rightist'--in telling blacks to cut it out with their racial politics--, McWhorther's argument seems to defend non-Western languages but then has the effect of suggesting that such languages are not necessary. After all, if Chinese is fundamentally no different than English in understanding/seeing the world, then one could argue that it's no loss if all Chinese dropped Chinese and picked up English. This can be said of any other nation/culture/language.

Of course, it could also mean that it would be no loss for Americans to drop English and learn Tamil, but given the state of power/influence in the world, what is more likely? Non-English speakers neglecting their own language in favor of English OR Americans dropping English in favor of something like Nepalese or Croatian?

So, McWhorther's argument could be construed as slyly neo-'rightist'(meaning that the left, having become the new dominant power, has become the new right trying to expand its power and influence over everyone).

Gubbler of the Society of Reformed Chechenistics said...

If non-English speakers do not have worldviews different from English speakers because of linguistic differences, then why shouldn't they just drop their own languages and choose English as the first language of choice since English has become the global language?

But, there's something fishy here. Does McWhorther really believe that there are no differences in world-view due to languages OR is he trying to ensure that the world-view of English-speaking America(that is now controlled by Jews who favor homos and mulattos like himself) will prevail over ALL other worldviews?

Despite what he says, maybe he is subconsciously worried that there ARE INDEED differences in worldviews all over the world--for whatever reason(religious, political, cultural, linguistic)--and that such differences in worldview will effectively resist the influence of neo-American globalism dominated by prog urban elites who push stuff like PC and 'gay marriage'.

Surely he knows that such differences are best gotten rid of IF the world were all to speak the current version of American English loaded with PC terminology such as 'homophobia', 'racism', and the like.

McWhorther may be earnest on the surface, but I think the ideology that motivates him is a rather devious one, indeed one not much different from the one that convinced Russia in the 90s that there is one-size-fits-all solution to economic problems.

Waiting for supertongue(that happens to be globo-Jewish-American-English that favors mulattos and homos)?

Hmmm.

Glossy said...

Richard Nisbett argued in The Geography of Thought that ancient Greek was peculiarly well-adapted to coining new conceptual words, a role that it continues to play today in the coining of new scientific and technological terms.

Is Nisbett right?


No. You can create technical terms in any language. Germans had a language purity movement in the 18th and 19th century, so modern German has many fewer Greek and Latin terms in it than English. Icelandic and Chinese have almost no Latin and Greek terms. They're using native vocabulary for nearly everything. "Vocabulary" could have easily been "wordstore". Germans use Woerterbuch (words-book) for dictionary. Coming up with native terms is very easy.

notbob said...

An old joke, but kind of related:

1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

3. The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

4. The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

5. The Germans drink a lot of beers and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

CONCLUSION

Eat and drink what you like.
Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

(I grabbed it from here:
http://www.humormatters.com/jokeof.htm
)

ogunsiron said...

I'm quite fond of the more germanic sides of english.
I sometimes think that I should dive seriously into Tolkien so that I may learn True English.

Baloo said...

Speaking of using native roots instead of Latin and Greek, has anybody mentioned "Uncleftish Beholding"?

Reg Cæsar said...

I think English could easily have developed complicated non-French, non-Latin, non-Greek terminology… --James Kabala

And there's no better way to see what this might look like than reading Poul Anderson's Uncleftish Beholding

Reg Cæsar said...

Off-topic but on-subject: McWhorter once said that as a youngster in the early '70s, he was proud that the music made at the tine by his fellow blacks was more civilized than that made by whites.

His memories match mine, but that was a bubble that would burst shortly thereafter. Now it's a race to the bottom, but blacks are clearly in the lead again.

Anonymous said...

Too funny--the intellectual firmament's most famous cranky contrarian Steve Sailer leaps to defense of the nurture interpretation against proximate rival McWhorter (cf. also: "Melissa Harris Perry is right").

Obviously written language/vocabulary derives from speech and speech's upstream determinants must be biological, but don't dare take the position publicly till putting in your 10,000 HBD hours -- only room for one Galileo in this jungle!

bjdubbs said...

This is a good article by Australian mathematician James Franklin on how impoverished English was before it borrowed a ton of technical terms from late Scholastic philosophy.

http://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/mental.pdf

Auntie Analogue said...


This topic has, does, and will always generate more heat than light, which explains why John McWhorter and his ilk make a dependable living off of it.

So, does language affect how one perceives the world? You bet your grated Parmigiano it does: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlIrI80og8c

All I know is this: I stink therefore I am. And I know of no other language which can capture and express that concept as succinctly as English captures and expresses it.

Plus, despite the adequacy of my IQ and education, I still manage somehow to write a hell of a lot of wrongs.

No other tongue allows for as much fun as English grants to him who would drop back ten yards and pun - or, indeed, to him who catches it. Dalai Lama, anyone?

James Kabala said...

It seems to me that after 800 of conditioning, most English speakers do have a sense that technical vocabulary should be based on different roots from everyday vocabulary. Calling a dictionary a "word book" sounds vaguely ridiculous or primitive, like Moe Szylak caling a garage a "car hole" (or maybe a "car hold" - the line is not enunciated very well). Yet "word book" is actually a much more logical and clear term than "dictionary."

Glossy said...

"All I know is this: I stink therefore I am. And I know of no other language which can capture and express that concept as succinctly as English captures and expresses it."

Was that a joke? "I think, therefore I am" is a translation of "Cogito, ergo sum". The Latin original uses 40% fewer words. Fewer syllables too.

Anonymous said...

English does not have more vocabulary than other first-world languages. Yes, a lot of money and aspiness was put into the OED, but that has little to do with the size of the vocabulary of the living English language. I think that the largest Dutch dictionary is about the same size, and for the same reasons (i.e. money and aspiness).

I think the East Asians might give them a run for their money:

"SOUTH KOREA: After 30 years: world’s largest Chinese dictionary"

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2008012509544767

"Dankook University in South Korea has announced the imminent completion of a project huge in scale and decades in the making: the world’s largest and most comprehensive Chinese dictionary. Dankook’s Institute of Oriental Studies initiated research on the dictionary in 1977, partially motivated by a desire to have a Korean work to rival the Chinese-character dictionaries produced by neighbouring countries.

The university says the dictionary will be completed in April and the full 15-volume set published in May. The Dictionary of Chinese Characters in Korean Usage looks set to outstrip its regional rivals.

At 60,000 characters and some 500,000 words, in terms of volume the Korean tome clearly outdoes such established references as Japan’s Dai Kan-wa Jiten (50,000 characters and 530,000 words), Taiwan’s Zhongwen Da Cidian (50,000 characters and 400,000 words) and China’s Hanyu Da Cidian (23,000 characters and 370,000 words)."

Anonymous said...

"...Nisbett's arguments that Japanese speakers seem to be better at seeing the context and English speakers seem to be better at "object oriented" thinking..."

This is probably a really stupid question, but could you further explain the difference between those two forms of thinking? (Please and thank you.)

stari_momak said...

""Twitter Explodes After Trans Subject of Golf Article Kills Herself””

If Twitter Exploded in the forest, but no one was online, would it make a sound?

stari_momak said...

"The only Indo-European languages that are tonal are ancient Greek and modern-day Punjabi. “

Some dialects of the language formerly known as ‘Serbo-Croation’ are tonal to a limited extend.

Anonymous said...

This is probably a really stupid question, but could you further explain the difference between those two forms of thinking? (Please and thank you.)

The kind of examples I remember from Nisbett's book is that Asian students would group cow and grass together while Western students would group cow and pig together on questions asking students to group the related objects when given 3 objects.

vetr1234 said...

Tolkien wrote that the Elvish languages were really different than human and other languages, Shakespeare scholars sometimes posit that his best plays cluster around an unwritten better play he never wrote (they have a word for that ideal play but I forget it). So potential linguistic differences exist; however, much as I like my English and non-English speaking friends, they would probably all admit that they are not pumping out Tolkien or Shakespeare level conversational novelties on a daily basis, and my guess is that all languages (even the ones with 600.000 word dictionaries or cool tropical jungle idioms) are dragged down by the posturing of the would-be cool or would-be powerful and rarely rise above functional mediocrity, absent divine inspiration or similar good fortune, none of which is of real interest to secular academics.

FredR said...

"but to sound good, to be a language for poets to weave their spells."

Maybe Heidegger was really just a frustrated Englishman, born in the wrong country...

Anonymous said...

"My opinion? Anyone who is capable of and willing to write clearly and logically can achieve that goal in any first-world language. Language is just a reflection of the mind. It's a very flexible tool. So no, I don't think that English is more conducive to clarity than French or vice versa."

I didn't mean grammatically. French is no less 'precise' than English in that regard. I meant French is more 'musical', painterly, and fragrant in its sound and style.
English is a plainer sounding and spoken language.

Try speaking French like English, and it sounds flat and sober. It waters the sauce.

English words, even when loud and angry, has clipped and closed ends. Endings of French words can run oooooooon.

Justice vs Juuuustiiiice.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGvbEOSFle0

Try speaking English like French(or Italian), and it sounds ridiculously funny and exaggerated.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzlCdWwYn2I

French sounds poetic even with prose.
English reads prosy even as poetry.

I think maybe the French Revolution got out of hand cuz French language lets loose passions that rise high. People get carried away by the wind of their own rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

"My opinion? Anyone who is capable of and willing to write clearly and logically can achieve that goal in any first-world language."

Does that include Russian?

Sure, it can be achieved in Russian but it's more easily achieved in other languages. Russian is almost a textbook model of how not to devise a grammatical system. It's so clumsy, cumbersome, inefficient, arbitrary, and even illogical.

In Russian, "I didn't do anything" has to be written as "I didn't do nothing."

I love Russian and it has a rich history, but it's a mess. It's like someone took a crude peasant language and turned it into the most needlessly elaborate system. The smart thing would have been to lose the non-essentials and streamline the language into something lean and mean. Instead, Russian seemingly developed by loading simple Slavic tongue with all the complex grammar of Greek and Latin. It's like a horse with a ton of load on its back and also dragging a heavy wagon.

I'm not surprised that nothing the Russians have done has been noted for elegance and efficiency. Russian way out of a problem is to just add more and more stuff, like how they fought WWII.

Reading Russian and then its translation into a sounder language like English is like switching from jogging with a heavy coat and backpack to jogging in a light gym suit.

ogunsiron said...

Glossy said :

... Spelling Bees are unthinkable in Russian, for example. I haven't heard of them in French, German, Spanish or Italian either, though I won't guarantee that they don't exist. I'd be surprised if they do though.
==========
French is the other language where spelling is so idiosyncratic that spelling contests make sense. In french they're called "dictées" and winning them is quite prestigious.

Anonymous said...

I love Russian and it has a rich history, but it's a mess. It's like someone took a crude peasant language and turned it into the most needlessly elaborate system. The smart thing would have been to lose the non-essentials and streamline the language into something lean and mean. Instead, Russian seemingly developed by loading simple Slavic tongue with all the complex grammar of Greek and Latin. It's like a horse with a ton of load on its back and also dragging a heavy wagon.

I'm not surprised that nothing the Russians have done has been noted for elegance and efficiency. Russian way out of a problem is to just add more and more stuff, like how they fought WWII.

Reading Russian and then its translation into a sounder language like English is like switching from jogging with a heavy coat and backpack to jogging in a light gym suit.


It's not that Russian has added stuff. It's that English has lost much of its inflectional morphology, while Russian has kept most of the older inflectional morphology.

Peter the Shark said...

A lot of nonsense in this thread. There is very little evidence that language drives thought - plenty of evidence that thought drives language. An obvious example is that Jewish humor tends to be the same whether expressed in English, Yiddish, Russian, German or Hebrew. Germans are pretty humorless, yet German-speaking Jews, like Karl Kraus, could be as funny, cynical and sarcastic as any Borsch belt comedian.

Peter the Shark said...

Russian is almost a textbook model of how not to devise a grammatical system. It's so clumsy, cumbersome, inefficient, arbitrary, and even illogical.

What a load of nonsense. Clearly you do not speak Russian well. Russian grammar is very efficient if you are a literate person, and allows a lot of meaning packed into a short concise statement. Like Steve's favorite Lenin quote kto kogo. Somehow despite being "illogical" Russian speakers have produced as many great mathematicians and engineers as any world power in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Moreover, Russian grammar and vocabulary are very similar to Polish and Czech, yet Czechs act like Germans, and Poles are an interesting mix of extremely cultured European elites and violent peasants. Again it would seem that language is a tool of culture, it doesn't shape it in a very meaningful way.

Anonymous said...

"Russian grammar is very efficient if you are a literate person, and allows a lot of meaning packed into a short concise statement. Like Steve's favorite Lenin quote kto kogo. Somehow despite being "illogical" Russian speakers have produced as many great mathematicians and engineers as any world power in the 19th and 20th centuries."

Well, China has smart people too, but who's gonna say Chinese is a useful language? It too is a disaster.

Of course, if one grew up speaking Russian it just comes naturally.
And it's also true that Russian can be very concise and simple--even like baby talk--in some ways.
I Bob. You Bill? What that? That there.

But word order, though following a pattern, can sometimes be arbitrary, and the biggest disaster of all is conjugations upon conjugations, with many words not even following the general pattern.

English is thankfully less conjugation-crazy than most European languages, but Russian really takes the cake in conjugation lunacy.

Almost every verb has to be conjugated in this crazy manner:

http://masterrussian.com/vocabulary/ostavatsya_remain.htm

If it's only the verbs, okay.

But the freaking nouns and adjectives must also be changed depending on this or that tense.

http://www.study-languages-online.com/russian-adjectives-declension.html

http://masterrussian.com/aa052000a.shtml

More rules for plural nouns.

http://masterrussian.com/aa082100a.shtml

It's crazy and inefficient, often unnecessary.

If one grew up speaking this stuff--and kids pick up language quickly--, it isn't a problem, at least with simple talk.
But objectively speaking, it's a linguistic disaster from the perspective of function and design.

A language like Japanese is pronunciation-limited but very efficient and grammatically even less cluttered than English.
Russian is a mess.





Anonymous said...

"Moreover, Russian grammar and vocabulary are very similar to Polish and Czech, yet Czechs act like Germans, and Poles are an interesting mix of extremely cultured European elites and violent peasants."

I never said language is everything or that Slavic speakers can't be civilized or smart.
I said Slavic language, esp Russian, is not a smartly devised language. It's like Soviet planning produced some great scientists and things too, but it's not a model of efficiency.

That said, there are elements in Russian that make its poetry sound and feel especially poignant and beautiful, an effect that is almost impossible to convey in translation.

But then, when Russian is spoken crudely, it sounds like some caveman barbarian tongue.

Anonymous said...

The PC police will come knocking if I refer to "chairMAN" or "workMAN," etc. or if I say, "Everyone should be free to speak as HE wishes." Yet, English is the most gender-free of all the Indo-European languages and the others get free passes. Why is this?

Anonymous said...

We're so used to using Latin and Greek for technical and sophisticated vocabulary that Germanic vocabulary, especially with its compounding, sounds silly and ridiculous.

For example, hydrogen and oxygen in German and Dutch are called "waterstuff" and "sourstuff". A mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is called "knallgas" in German, which is literally "bang-gas" i.e. gas that goes bang.

Anonymous said...

Our guide to Iceland pointed out that there's no Icelandic equivalent of "please". A fairly direct bunch, Icelanders.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much language affects thought, but surely it's not a stretch to say that it affects societal organization and interpersonal relationships. English does not have separate formal and informal pronouns (e.g., "you" for German "Sie"/formal and "du"/informal). The loss of the informal "thou" may have led to Anglo societies becoming as socially egalitarian as they did.

Other languages have further hierarchies built-in that probably affects the way people think (at least when they talk to each other). Tamil, for example, has different words for older brother/sister and younger brother/sister.

Anonymous said...

"The only Indo-European languages that are tonal are ancient Greek and modern-day Punjabi. “

Some dialects of the language formerly known as ‘Serbo-Croation’ are tonal to a limited extend.


Also to a minor extent, standard Swedish and Norwegian. Swedish "anden", for example, can mean either 'duck' or 'spirit', depending the tone.

Anonymous said...

If you were to create a new language, which existing language model would you follow?

English would be ideal in grammatical structure.

Anonymous said...

I've read that this is true in some Australian Aborigine languages. I doubt it's much more widespread than that.

Lacking compasses, how would they have known which direction is north and which direction is south?

International Jew said...

A more interesting question is how the way we use or own language colors our attitudes. There's a fascinating book about that--_Metaphors we Live By_. One of the coauthors, George Lakoff, has been advising the Left about how to use language to repackage old failed Leftist ideas.

kaganovitch said...

"Yiddish is the world's most developed language for the art of demeaning other people's intelligence."

Based on what? I assume that you are not a Yiddish speaker, Steve, so what is the source for this contention?

Anonymous said...

"Based on what? I assume that you are not a Yiddish speaker, Steve, so what is the source for this contention?"

What do you take him for, a schmuck?

Anonymous said...

Some languages sound goofy and funny, and such people might have a goofier and funnier view of the world.

Anonymous said...

"Languages evolved to prevent us communicating, writes Professor Pagel in New Scientist this week"

http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/releases/PR478283.aspx

"Languages have acted as a powerful social anchor of our tribal identity throughout modern human history, but between 30 and 50 languages are being lost every year as the inhabitants of small tribal societies adopt majority languages. It is inevitable that eventually there will be one single language. So concludes Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, in his article, War of Words, in this week's New Scientist.

Drawing on his ERC research project on the evolution of language and material from his recent book, Wired for Culture, Professor Pagel explains in the article how languages have evolved since modern humans emerged in Africa 200,000 years ago and why today's 7000 languages are probably a fraction of those spoken throughout that history.

His research has demonstrated that the greatest diversity in human societies and languages has arisen where people are most closely packed together, near to the equator, rather than when they are geographically scattered, as might be expected. As an example, he points to Papua New Guinea, which is a relatively small country but home to 15% of the languages spoken across the world. Why, he asks, would people living so close together have become incapable of talking to one another?

He points to continual battles in human history as a reason for linguistic diversity. In the New Scientist article he says; "We have acquired a suite of traits that help our own particular group to outcompete the others. Two traits that stand out are ‘groupishness' - affiliating with people with whom you share a distinct identity - and xenophobia... In this context, languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity."

He cites, as evidence, anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, to distinguish them from neighbouring groups, and in modern times, the differences between American and British English.

The rate of loss of languages in modern times exceeds that of biological diversity decline, he says. Globalisation and electronic communication is creating cultural homogeneity, which will inevitably lead to a "mass extinction of languages to rival the great biological extinctions in Earth's past." However, this trend is happening more slowly than it could due to the psychological role language plays in identity. Foreign words are still sometimes viewed with suspicion and nationalist agendas foster policies to save dying languages. In the long-run, however, "it seems virtually inevitable that a single language will replace all others....English is already the worldwide linguafranca, so if I had to put money on one language, this would be it.""

Anonymous said...

http://www.russianlessons.net/grammar/verbs_aspect.php

More Russian lunacy.

Imperfective and perfective verbs.

In English, it's implied through context or simple distinction of 'was eating' and 'ate'.

In Russian, you gotta learn the imperfective and perfective cases. Ludicrousness.

Some perfectives are easily formed with a prefix but many are very different from imperfectives.

Reg Cæsar said...

English is the only important language in the world that is not run by some organization. --Glossy [I think I know your brother Matte.]

And just who would run this "organization" that would in turn "run" the language? Lancasters or Yorks? Roundheads or Cavaliers or recusant Papists? Scots or Irishmen or Welshmen? Brits or Yanks or compromising Canucks?

Would it be housed in London or Oxford or Cambridge? Or Cambridge, Mass., New Haven, or Princeton? Manhattan, Washington, or Studio City? Skookumchuck or Rotorua or Bulawayo, Walla Walla or Wooloomooloo?

Every now and then the Portuguese and Brazilian authorities get together to smooth over differences in language. Then they report back to the gente-- a word pronounced "zhent" in one country and "zhen-chee" in the other. Boa sorte with that, João.

And, leaving out the Africans, that's just two countries-- Portugal and Brazil. (Or "Braziw" and "Portugaw", if you're in Rio.) English has seven, and more after devolution.

Your "organization" (or "organisation") has its work cut out for it. Keep your pecker up, lest you get kicked in the fanny.

Glossy said...

"Lacking compasses, how would they have known which direction is north and which direction is south?"

The point on the horizon from which the sun appears to rise in the morning is by convention called the east. The point at which it appears to set in the evening is called the west. If you stand with the east on your right-hand side and the west on your left-hand side, then you'll have north in front of you and south behind you.

"Boa sorte with that, João."

It's worked out for them. Portuguese spelling is far more predictable than English spelling. This is undoubtedly because of centuries of management.

English would be ideal in grammatical structure.

Over the centuries English lost most of the old Indo-European inflectional grammar. It replaced much of it with analytical grammar, which relies on word order, prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs and pronouns. An analytical grammar isn't necessarily easier to learn than an inflectional grammar. Every language seems easy to its native speakers, especially if they're monoglots. I have a feeling that inflectional grammars seem difficult to English speakers more because they're different than because they're complex. You don't see the complexities of English grammar because you learned it subconsciously in childhood.

Anonymous said...

""Lacking compasses, how would they have known which direction is north and which direction is south?"

The point on the horizon from which the sun appears to rise in the morning is by convention called the east. The point at which it appears to set in the evening is called the west. If you stand with the east on your right-hand side and the west on your left-hand side, then you'll have north in front of you and south behind you. "

You have proven you can think grasshopper.

However, all that shows is that they have to pay attention to where the sun rises and sets with respect to their current position.

For a people who spend all of their time outside, that is easy. Perhaps that explains why Aboriginal kids don't like school. Prevents then from getting in touch with their culture and its requirement that they provide directions with respect to where the sun rises and sets.

Anonymous said...

"And just who would run this "organization" that would in turn "run" the language? Lancasters or Yorks? Roundheads or Cavaliers or recusant Papists? Scots or Irishmen or Welshmen? Brits or Yanks or compromising Canucks?

Would it be housed in London or Oxford or Cambridge? Or Cambridge, Mass., New Haven, or Princeton? Manhattan, Washington, or Studio City? Skookumchuck or Rotorua or Bulawayo, Walla Walla or Wooloomooloo?"



Brussels, it appears, good sir. The STEMG is in Brussels.

(Yup, English, the real-world language, cannot be controlled. But you don't want, say, aviation mechanics rebuilding jet engines for you in Mexico, Thailand, China, or Lithuania to screw-up due to Crazy English language problems.)

So there is an organization:


WELCOME TO THE STEMG WEB SITE

The official home of ASD Simplified Technical English, ASD-STE100 (STE)


ASD SIMPLIFIED TECHNICAL ENGLISH

Specification ASD-STE100



Of course an artificial subset English language committee operates out of Brussels...

"The ASD Simplified Technical English Maintenance Group (STEMG) is very pleased to announce that on Tuesday, November 26, 2013, at ASD Headquarters in Rue Montoyer 10, Brussels..."




"Simplified English is... a controlled language. The aerospace and defense standard started as an industry-regulated writing standard for aerospace maintenance documentation, but has become mandatory for an increasing number of military land vehicle, sea vehicle and weapons programs as well. Although it was not intended for use as a general writing standard, it has been successfully adopted by other industries and for a wide range of document types.

...

... STE is defined by the specification ASD-STE100, which is maintained by the Simplified Technical English Maintenance Group (STEMG).[2] The specification contains a set of restrictions on the grammar and style of procedural and descriptive text. It also contains a dictionary of approx. 875 approved general words. Writers are given guidelines for adding technical names and technical verbs to their documentation. STE is mandated by several commercial and military specifications that control the style and content of maintenance documentation, most notably ASD S1000D."



It's interesting that STE was originally defined by Fokker, apparently influenced by Caterpillar's simplified technical English.

Anonymous said...

And about Simplified Technical English, we English speakers are, ah, in high cotton because those fussy Europeans are working hard on a standard subset English. I hear they have lots of practice. We can just ease back and watch. Man, this is straight from Tom Sawyer!

Reg Cæsar said...

Portuguese spelling is far more predictable than English spelling. This is undoubtedly because of centuries of management. ---Glossy

American spelling is more predictable than English-- or rather, American pronunciation is more likely to be literal. That's with zero management. By government, at least. The closest thing to what you propose in America was Noah Webster-- and he increased the differences between us and England.

Do we really need a panel of scholar-bureaucrats to tell us that the H in spaghetti is superfluous (in our language) and therefore must go, as the German academy did recently? We rather like the look of the Italian original.

On the other hand, sentrum, stasjon and filosofi look childish on signs in Scandinavia. Better the "uncleftish beholding" attitude of the Icelanders. But Anglophones would never stand for that.

The usual complaint is that English is too difficult for foreigners to learn. Considering our near monopoly on the world's immigration, and our endless trade deficits, such difficulty (as it is) would be a feature, not a bug.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUWlPjXvFZU

Modern characters speak Shakespearean stuff.

I don't know about worldview, but speaking Shakesperese in the modern world does affecr personal view. Don't progs say 'the personal is political'?

Then a change of personal view will surely change worldview.

Anonymous said...

"Lacking compasses, how would they have known which direction is north and which direction is south?"

Sigh.

Anonymous said...

And just who would run this "organization" that would in turn "run" the language? Lancasters or Yorks? Roundheads or Cavaliers or recusant Papists? Scots or Irishmen or Welshmen? Brits or Yanks or compromising Canucks?

Of course English is regulated, it's just not not government-regulated. A handful of influential dictionaries and style guides regulate the two main national standards, and virtually all official and prestige publications conform to them. Of course, because there's more than one authoritative dictionary etc. writers get more wiggle room than if there were an academy. But anyone who does professional editing knows perfectly well there are standards that need to be applied.

jody said...

i wanna post in here and i have some stuff to say as a guy with a degree related to this topic, but man, steve is moving fast these days on his 3 red bull a day schedule. anything i post about the whorf hypothesis will just be buried.

Glossy said...

"The closest thing to what you propose..."

I'm not proposing anything because it's silly to propose things that have zero chance of occurring. My main point is that English spelling is less predictable than the spelling of any other European language because it was never managed by a central authority. If anybody's curious about how English spelling got this way, I have the answer for them. That is all.

Anonymous said...

People who sigh usually don't think.