Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Does the structure of the language we speak affect the way we think and how we perceive the world? If you are intrigued by that idea and don’t mind re-examining any cherished Sapir-Whorf beliefs you may have this short but spirited and well argued book will be of interest. When we think of the fascinatingly structured Navajo language there is some appeal to the idea that its speakers have a special, maybe advanced way of understanding reality, but with his usual well informed wit McWhorter makes the case that if you accept that and take the idea that language patterns and limits our perceptions to all its logical conclusions you’ll end up with some very unpalatable and fortunately wrong judgements about various other peoples of the world--from the Chinese who speak a language which marks hypotheticals less explicitly than English (though surely Chinese speakers around the globe understand the difference between “She would have called him” and “She will have called him” anyway) to the people in New Guinea who speak languages with only one word for eat, drink, and smoke, (but who couldn’t possibly be thus doomed by this lack to be unable to distinguish between those three activities.)
Most people tend to take their own language’s idiosyncrasies (and idioms) in stride, accepting them as what’s normal, but language variations are the actual norm. McWhorter makes a convincing case that most of the often marvelous differences between languages are random, like spontaneous DNA mutations, and almost meaningless when we are looking at cognitive skills. Yes, Amazonian people with languages that have no way to indicate amounts higher than 2 or 3 will likely not be good at math, but McWhorter believes that is driven by circumstance and culture since hunter-gathers around the world and throughout time have not had much use for a number like 8,527.
McWhorter is always entertaining, and I especially love all the fascinating language facts he deploys, like that the Tuyuca people, who also live in the Amazon, have a language so rich and complex there are multiple suffixes for every verb to indicate where the speaker learned whatever he or she is saying--there’s one suffix affixed to the verb to let listeners know that speakers heard someone else say what they are now saying, another suffix for when the speakers instead saw what they are telling you, yet another for when the speakers think what they are saying is true but aren’t sure, etc. The Language Hoax is replete with wonderful, mind-expanding language anecdotes.
While it’s definitely both fun and worth reading, this isn’t my favorite of McWhorter’s books. Because it focuses somewhat narrowly on the debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its neo-Whorfian revival, The Language Hoax didn’t glue me to its pages with the same level of intensity that some of McWhorter’s other titles have, including Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, which gives different insights into the history English than I have read elsewhere, The Power of Babel, which covers the worldwide history of language and its development, and What Language Is, which presents an almost fecund biological picture of how languages multiply, evolve, and disperse.