The Magnificent “Accretion of Random Habits”: On Language, Perception, and the World

By Stuart WhatleyMay 15, 2014

The Magnificent “Accretion of Random Habits”: On Language, Perception, and the World

The Language Hoax by John H. McWhorter

THOUGH BORN of the best intentions, an earnest liberal insistence that all cultures have equal dignity can, ironically, be quite condescending. Take for example that old backhanded compliment “noble savage.” In 1844, the artist George Catlin used it to introduce his Ioway Indian subject in a dramatic rendition on the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. He explained in his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians that, “Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, is surely the most beautiful model for the painter.” His collection would go on to introduce “evidence of the hospitality of these ignorant and benighted people, and also of their honesty and honour.” As if such revelations should seem so novel.

For centuries smitten romantics had embraced the noble savage’s supposedly alternate worldview as an analgesic to the baleful effects of modern, industrial society; while one would be mortified to hear anything so disdainfully expressed today, the impulse still obtains. One place to hear echoes of it, suggests Columbia University linguist John McWhorter in The Language Hoax, is in the latest iteration of Whorfianism, an outmoded 20th-century school of thought that factors in one’s language as a primary determinant for how one experiences the world.1 Whorfianism posits that a given language’s defining structural elements — it’s verb tenses, gender signifiers, plural markers, definite articles, lexical repetitions, and so forth — actually affect how a speaker of that language processes information and experiences the world.

To take one example, the Tuyuca language in the Amazon makes rich use of evidential markers, which are linguistic elements that place special emphasis on the sources of information, no matter how trivial. Thus, through a traditional Whorfian lens, Tuyuca speakers are seen as eminently skeptical due to the routine scrutiny their language demands. Whorfians usually stop there, content in having underscored the savvy perspicacity of a small traditional society. But the pitfalls of this thinking soon become clear: what about all those other languages where evidential markers are less common, such as in most of those spoken across Africa and Polynesia? If we accept the Whorfian conclusion, McWhorter points out, then we must also accept its implication that “Africans and Polynesians are not hypersensitive to sources of information […] They are apparently not — let’s face it, this is where the logic takes us — terribly bright.”

According to McWhorter, the notion that language dictates different “worldviews” is intellectually dangerous and linguistically unsound, but it persists because it is

in tune with impulses deeply felt in the modern enlightened American’s soul. Ethnocentrism revolts us. Virtually as penance for our good fortune in living in a wealthy and geopolitically dominant society, as well as for the horrors we have perpetrated on so many groups in the world, we owe it to the rest of the world to stress our awareness that the less fortunate are our equals. 

However, it also persists because ongoing research actually does establish very fleeting connections between language and thought. McWhorter deals with this in his first chapter, where he cautiously praises contemporary “Neo-Whorfian” experiments as “clever and elegant,” while lamenting the sensationalized public reception that attends their results.

One such experiment honed in on the fact that Russians have separate words for light blue and dark blue, but no word for just plain blue. In a closely controlled laboratory setting, Russian speakers were able to discern matching bluish shaded squares on a screen faster than English speakers, but only by 124 milliseconds on average. As McWhorter notes, these results are certainly intriguing, but hardly amount to an earth-shattering discovery about alternative modes of human experience. Nevertheless, he laments that this didn’t stop an op-ed in The New York Times by linguist Guy Deutscher from declaring that, “our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.”

 Another example involves the Amazon’s Pirahã people, who do not have a formal numerical lexicon and so are said to be incapable of performing basic mathematics. McWhorter lists some of the reporting that followed this finding — “‘Tribe without names for numbers cannot count’ (Nature, August 19, 2004); ‘Experts agree that the startling result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts’ (New Scientist, same day)” — and then foils it with farce: “‘Tribe without cars doesn’t drive.’” Elided in the coverage, McWhorter notes, is that hunter-gatherer tribes “quite often have no numbers beyond two or so” and still get on just fine. The more valuable takeaway is that “counting, as humanity goes, is an accessory, despite how fundamental it seems to us.”

Early on, McWhorter positions his book as an answer to two bestsellers from a few years back that compiled much of the Neo-Whorfian research: Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes and Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass. But these works, McWhorter himself admits, explicitly reject traditional Whorfianism and duly report on the modesty of Neo-Whorfianism’s findings. Of Deutscher’s book specifically, he writes that it “is so thorough in outlining both the failure of early Whorfianism and the deeply modest results of Neo-Whorfianism that it is, in essence, a gorgeously written chronicle of an idea that didn’t pan out.” McWhorter does cite truly egregious examples of Whorfian academic work, particularly certain sinophobic-tinged studies by the psychologist Alfred H. Bloom, but those were published decades ago and have been rebutted ever since. 

So, is the problem contemporary academics or is it the media reporting on their findings? Though the Nature and New Scientist articles above didn’t do the public’s understanding any favors, McWhorter later writes, “It is linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists who are responsible for enlightening the public that language does not track with culture the way we might expect it to.” Ultimately, it kind of sounds like everyone is a little bit to blame. McWhorter’s real target, harder to tamp down, is a “general orientation” towards treating language as a lens for the world, which exists because the academy and the media give it oxygen. However, other than being aware of this orientation and its dangers, it isn’t entirely clear what else there is to do about it. Surely the linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists conducting good-faith research that could brush up against Whorfian interpretations shouldn’t suddenly call the whole thing off.

As it happens, a hefty portion of McWhorter’s book departs from the original Whorfian grounds of how language structure acts on thought processes and looks instead in the opposite direction, where he says latterly Neo-Whorfian interpretations have staked their claim. He notes that culture itself can affect “how language works” and how “languages serve the basic needs of communication” for any given people on a practical level, but he has a problem with the suggestion that a “complementary relationship” exists between language and thought or language and culture, where, “languages evolve according to the particular, culture-internal needs of their speakers.” 

That suggestion, applied to the Tuyuca example, would mean that certain languages stress evidentiary sources because some part of being a hunter-gatherer in the Amazon made that necessary. The idea is plausible and highly attractive as a clean-cut explanation, but McWhorter wants none of it: “The variety among the world’s languages in terms of how they work is unrelated to the variety among the world’s peoples.” The Whorfian interpretation here is linguistically flawed for the same reason it is culturally myopic — numerous other cultures living in similar conditions to the Tuyuca have almost no evidentiary markers at all; many vastly different cultures arbitrarily do.

This all points to a central theme in McWhorter’s argument: language is not some deterministic phenomenon, but rather “a shambolically magnificent accretion of random habits” with “chance” as the strongest factor in whether or not certain linguistic elements are adopted or discarded. That is an assertion that runs up against our natural, pattern-seeking tendency to assign purpose and meaning to all things, which he sees as being further fueled by those bestsellers mentioned earlier. True, it’s much more marketable to boil infinitely complex phenomena down into commonsense reductions than to admit that some outcomes really are just exegetically defiant confections of contingency. 

But here we must confront the narrowness of what McWhorter’s book is really concerned with  the propensity to assign too much depth of meaning not to what a language has to say, but to how it says it  as well as the nebulousness of his primary target. He provides sufficient examples of academics that have stuck their toe into the Whorfian pool, but there is a lingering absence of anyone who is really jumping all the way in these days. More generally, it looks like what we’re dealing with is more the ineradicable temptation to make academic work more intriguing for lay consumption. As for those testing the water, McWhorter does concede from the start that, even if marginally so, language can affect thought, which ongoing Neo-Whorfian experiments demonstrate. This makes the use of “hoax” in the title seem a bit much, as no legitimate parties are out fabricating evidence with malicious intent to dupe the public (of course, this may fall more on the publisher than the author). 

Language also can, and does, reflect culture, at least insofar as popular metaphors, idioms, or jargon can reveal embedded ideologies, current social trends, historical patterns, and so forth. In McWhorter’s book this all amounts to non-Whorfian marginalia, because it deals with what a particular language says and not how it says it; this area of inquiry goes a long way in explaining the persistence of those looking to language for edification about varying cultures and peoples. In his own TED Talk about the acronym-laden language of texting, which presumably arose to account for type pad constraints, he describes it as a “linguistic miracle” and an emergently complex addition built onto the larger house of English. The stuff of texting of course does not indicate any distinct experience of the world for its millennial practitioners, but if McWhorter’s goal is to militate against credulous general orientations, then why garnish texting with the numinous trappings of a “miracle” when it’s really just an example of language doing what language always does? Perhaps, in this case, he succumbed to the same impulse as others to bedizen his interpretation for a public stage.

Language and culture are intrinsically messy, each mixing the practical with the shambolic, so they will always have an air of mystery subject to wide-ranging and far-reaching interpretations. Ultimately, the central plea in McWhorter’s very readable book is a refreshing one: we should marvel at the diversity of languages as fascinating on its own and not dig intellectual holes we could come to regret.


By the way, those Ioway Indian tribesmen whom George Catlin paraded through London in 1844 were neither oblivious to their exploitation, nor did they or Catlin himself really buy into the “Noble Savage” fairy tale. Instead, they really were conducting a hoax. Both parties were in it for the show — and the money. As the historian Joseph B. Herring notes, it was typical during this time to “[promote] a mythical image of Native Americans for profit,” and the tribesmen “presented themselves as noble savages, a fictitious image, to advance their own ends.” They gave their boobish audience the show it wanted to see, and got a paid vacation through Europe to boot. We really do all think alike after all, in any language. 



1. Whorfianism grew largely out of the ideas and published writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf in the first half of the 20thcentury. Inspired by 19th century German Romantic philosophers and linguists like Edward Sapir, Whorf, studying the Native American Hopi language’s lack of past and future verb conjugations, opined that “The world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds.”


Stuart Whatley is an editor and writer in New York.

LARB Contributor

Stuart Whatley is a senior editor at Project Syndicate. He has written for CNN, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The American Prospect, Free Inquiry, and other outlets.


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