A 'Rose By Any Other Name' DOES Smell As Sweet

Thursday, May 01, 2014

John McWhorter, Columbia linguistics professor, New Republic contributing editor, Time columnist and the author of The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford University Press, USA, 2014) argues against the view that language shapes how we perceive or interact with the world, plus discusses the politics news this week.



John McWhorter

Comments [50]

Scott Singer

"I'd be interested to know whether the guest feels AAVN is a legitimate English dialect or a purely political construct."
In his books he has argued that it is a completely legitimate English dialect, with as much linguistic validity as any dialect of any language. He argues that it originated from contact between West African languages and speakers of nonstandard English dialects spoken in the South and parts of Britain, and has inherited features of structure and vocabulary from both, while retaining some West African features in its sound system (mainly intonation).

Aug. 03 2014 10:47 PM


Jul. 10 2014 07:32 AM

@Mola- "liberals can't see that class distinction is on the rise"? i think that that cuts both ways, and across party and ethnic demographics.

May. 02 2014 12:49 AM

how can one make an artificial,at best, mechanical distinction; between language structure,and the culture that both molded ;and, was influenced by the language structure itself. how that would, could, be quantified is beyond me.

May. 01 2014 11:51 PM
Lou Sid from NYC

This is yet another instance of the showcasing of the pontifications of the fool expert. It's amusing to notice day after day the deference that this show gives to it's guests, no matter what they say (of course they're almost always promoting or selling something). If someone (like most of the callers) who is bi or tri-lingual reports that changing languages changes the way they experience life (what is more subjective than "world view"), leave it to Brian to allow this professor to stridently dismiss it. Start speaking to any immigrant in their native language and notice how every social and perceptual thing about them instantly changes.

May. 01 2014 01:05 PM
Moola from NYC

in Hebrew the word for Wife is "My Woman" (said by men- traditionally)
In Hebrew the word for Husband is "My Owner" (said by women - traditionally)
Disgusting but used to this day, the language is very old and reflects an old world view that is sadly around in the 21st Century. Hebrew works like no other language is meant to reflect a spiritual connection between the Heavens and humans.

May. 01 2014 12:18 PM
Gary from central NJ

People who live in the NY area have a lot of words for rain.

May. 01 2014 12:17 PM
Doug Turner

The etymology for butterfly offered by a caller can't stand unchallenged. It is not the result of switching around initial sounds of "flutter by" to make it easier to pronounce. Apparently, it isn't clear where the word comes from, but it probably has to do with the belief that the insect stole butter/milk from pails, or the color of the wings on common species. The Old Dutch word boterschijte (butter shit) may refer to the appearance of butterfly excrement, which led to the Old Dutch word botervlieg (butter fly).

May. 01 2014 12:14 PM
Moola from NYC

Supreme Court got it right with ending affirmative action based on race, but they got it wrong when they said that racism in the US is over. It's not.
Class distinction is on the rise, why can't Liberals see that?
Liberals don't seem to understand that the world is changing.

Why should the Obama daughters have a leg up over a poor white person trying to get in the same U.?
The Obama daughters are as privileged and entitled as a white person whose parent(s) went to Harvard or Columbia...oh wait, the Obama daughters already have that.

May. 01 2014 12:14 PM

I'm fluent in English, 3/4 in German and speak a bit of several other languages, but have many international friends from all parts of the earth. Part of the joy in these friendships is discovering how other languages create their particular profile, and how some languages have that one word or expression that conveys an idea that might require a paragraph in your own language. For instance, the Brazilian "kkkkkkkkk!!!!" isn't even a word (does it originate in Portuguese?), but when you sound it out on your own tongue the sentiment is completely obvious. Japanese sentence structure is often a bit of an epiphany in redefining ideas. A hipster Russian might suddenly make a reference to a proverb involving a farmer and potatoes. Your French friend proceeds with caution in an effort not to offend you when complimenting on your wisdom (not to be confused with old age). My Italian friends are very direct.

I've always believed that ESL schools should include a course in Seinfeld. So many of the references are a permanent part of the NYC landscape, and I've been told it helps newcomers understand local vernacular and humor.

May. 01 2014 12:01 PM
Amy from Manhattan

In languages that don't ask your age in terms of how old you are, at least nobody says, "I'm 72 years young!"

May. 01 2014 11:59 AM
p from NY

Flutterby? That is such an urban legend! That caller should have done her research before sounding so sanctimonious.

Just google it:

"The name is derived from Middle English buterflie, butturflye, boterflye, from Old English butorflēoge, buttorflēoge, buterflēoge, perhaps a compound of butor (beater), mutation of bēatan (to beat), and flēoge (fly).[2]"

May. 01 2014 11:58 AM
Robert from NYC

I love that. I will from this moment on call that lovely little creature a Flutterby. (IF I remember that.) Thanks lady who just told us that.

BTW, I just wish people would stop saying jewlery, my nerves shatter every time I hear it.

May. 01 2014 11:58 AM
blr200 from SI, NY

I find McWhorter's defense of the MI decision incomplete - has he never heard of the achievement gap (the purported rationale for No Child Left Behind)? We have a lot of data that suggests that, particularly in the area of schooling, many students of color - well off and poor - still lag behind their white peers.

May. 01 2014 11:58 AM
mick from i

Expressing conservative, the views of the most powerful in society, is NEVER a bad career move. The quest to defeat and destroy the dreaded "Political Correctness" in all its manifestations has always depended on straw man arguments like Dr. McWhorter's that exaggerate the claims of the mainstream of the opinion that is being attacked. In the 60s, strong versions of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis were more frequently voiced by those who argued against it than by the supposed proponents. The differences that can be attributed to language differences operate through the attention system. So its not that you can't see the same thing in the world regardless of your language, what but you first see (attend to), and are statistically more likely to act on, is influenced by your habitual vocabulary related to what you are looking at and its cultural significance.

May. 01 2014 11:56 AM

This has been a "kinda', sorta' very interesting segment.

May. 01 2014 11:55 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I think the "Eskimos have all these different names for snow" idea isn't a good example. They use different words for different *kinds* of snow, which most other languages describe by putting an adjective before or after snow, e.g., falling snow, wet snow, packed snow, drifted snow. ...Now that I've written that, I may need to change my original statement. It might be a good example, but for a different reason. Eskimos may think of all those kinds of snow as different things, whereas speakers who call all of them "snow" think of them as the same thing.

May. 01 2014 11:53 AM

what a breath of fresh air this guest is. no agendas and a clear and on the level discussion... wow.

May. 01 2014 11:52 AM
Steven from Brooklyn

I once taught a class the value of commas by contrasting:

"I'm sorry, you're too young for me" with "I'm sorry you're too young for me".

May. 01 2014 11:50 AM

For the first time in MONTHS, Brian had a guest who does not share
the NPR consensus.

John McWhorter is brilliant and honest !

Would love it if he was invited in as a regular guest !!

May. 01 2014 11:49 AM

Some Native American languages process language differently as it relates to distance. They give directions using very accurate estimations of distance ex: "walk 55 and a half feet North."

Their minds see distance and language in a totally different way from speakers of other languages.

see NYT article:

May. 01 2014 11:49 AM
Andrea from Philadelphia

Re: affirmative action in ed.: what about the current state of segregation in k-12 schools, even (or especially) in urban centers like NYC?

May. 01 2014 11:48 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

Yes, interesting an African -American right wing reactionary. Here is language for you,

May. 01 2014 11:48 AM
Dan K from park slope

It's where your thoughts are coming from, not how you articulate them. Your thoughts come from a sub-conscience level, not related to language. The language you speak is the best method you have to convey those thoughts to others.

Therefore, it's what you think that matters, and in all likelihood, humankind is capable of the same thoughts. This is why book translation works. The best translators must re-work the language, but they are capable of understanding the meaning in the first language, and then convey that meaning in the other language.

May. 01 2014 11:45 AM
anna from UWS

As far as I can tell the world doesn't look the same even to those speaking the same language.

May. 01 2014 11:45 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

This guest dose not “knows exactly” what the caller means. Since his real agenda is about racism. Language construction is a way to describe the world and the relationship human beings have to it and each other via their culture. Not all cultures are the same.

May. 01 2014 11:43 AM
Steven from Brooklyn

In the Fats Domino song, Hello Josephine he had a lyric that I always understood (sources differ) as "Now you try to make believe, IT was no days like that". I always found that rather eloquent.

May. 01 2014 11:43 AM
David M from New Yawk

This about romance languages and gender specific words. When a group of objects, nouns for example cows, Vacas in Spanish have ONE male they become Burros. Isn't this a world view? That male is superior? And I mean superior in the sense of above or over. Would that even be that language was used by men to complete the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal societies 5000 years or so ago?

May. 01 2014 11:42 AM

...not sure I agree, though!

May. 01 2014 11:42 AM
Fred from Larchmont

I lived in Spain for years and speak Spanish fluently. I don't know if I have two world views, but possibly two personalities: in English, I opt for wit when I can, or at any rate beating around the bush. Small talk is tedious torture. In Spanish I'm straightforward and direct and don't mind small talk.

May. 01 2014 11:40 AM
Marie from New York, NY

What about the apparent violence in a number of American idioms, e.g. "killing two birds with one stone" or "break a leg." Is that unique to American English?

May. 01 2014 11:40 AM

Is the guest familiar with people from "cardinal cultures". These would be people who have a constant understanding of their orientation.

So pointing at their chest is not me, it is pointing through you in that direction.

There is a great example, I listened to this on WNYC a while ago, but if you were to put a typical western person ina hotel with identical rooms on the left and right -- if they were knocked out when placed in the rooms they would look identical.

But to a cardinal individual they would see the rooms differently. They would see the bed on the north wall in one room but the south wall in the other, etc etc.

May. 01 2014 11:39 AM

I get distracted by these comparisons every time I learn a non-English phrase. Does de-emphasizing it hinder or help language acquisition?

May. 01 2014 11:39 AM
Ivan H. from Chelsea

Mr McWhorter is correct in claiming that different languages constitute a different worldview-- but neither does ANYTHING! 'Worldview' is an enormously large thing. NOTHING singularly affects one's worldview. It is a beautifully complex interrelationship of many things-- from culture, language, climate.... and they all affect subtly one's relationship to others.
I speak four languages, and the best part of it is being able to use those languages to ENTER different 'worldviews'-- but the WOLRLDVIEW is not an endpoint. It is a filter through which to connect to others!

May. 01 2014 11:39 AM


Thanks for this!

May. 01 2014 11:38 AM
Ruby from Brooklyn

Grammar is an architecture and architecture does influence perception and life. I don't think language is determinate of world view, but it influences approaches, philosophy and cultural touchstones.

May. 01 2014 11:38 AM
Pascale from Atlanta

Language doesn't necessarily reflect the culture, because as a French Canadian, my culture is totally different than the culture from France ^^

May. 01 2014 11:37 AM
oscar from ny

I heard if you smell roses the fragrance is suppose to make you smart 😻

May. 01 2014 11:37 AM
Ruby from Brooklyn

Grammar is an architecture and architecture does influence perception and life. I don't think language is determinate of world view, but it influences approaches, philosophy and cultural touchstones.

May. 01 2014 11:37 AM
Maggie from Brooklyn

I think the more interesting question than worldview is how multilingual people sometimes take on slightly different personas according which language they're speaking at the time. This has to do with the affective environment people acquire their languages in, how comfortable they are in each language, etc. In one example, someone might choose to do therapy in their second language to avoid the emotional resonance of their maternal language. Or vice versa.

May. 01 2014 11:35 AM
Kevin from Brooklyn

I have heard of an Aboriginal language group in Northern Australia in which people discuss their location relative to the world as a whole rather than the relative location of themselves to other items.

Could this affect someone's perspective on the importance of an individual over a community or the world at large?

May. 01 2014 11:35 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I'd be interested to know whether the guest feels AAVN is a legitimate English dialect or a purely political construct.

May. 01 2014 11:35 AM
Kari from WHite Plains

I agree. I grew up bilingual French/English. I have a question about this, though.
I didn;t even notice that the word used by most people for "wife" in French, is "woman" until I studied Spanish in school, and was upset to find out that men said "my woman" when they spoke of their spouses. How does the speaker think this relates to the "macho" culture of latin based languages?

May. 01 2014 11:35 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I'd be interested to know whether the guest feels AAVN is a legitimate English dialect or a purely political construct.

May. 01 2014 11:34 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

The guest speak any other language then English?

May. 01 2014 11:34 AM
M. Michel from Jackson Heights NY

Eliminate commas? I proofread for court reporters, and let me tell you: A properly placed or improperly placed comma can cause significant differences in meaning. In my case there are serious legal implications. In general writing, poor comma usage (all too comma) creates confusion and errors.

May. 01 2014 11:31 AM

What about different language gender assignment to vocabulary?

May. 01 2014 11:29 AM

Right! Doesn't language reflect culture, not vice versa? Otherwise would language and vocabulary never expand based on changes in the culture and society?

May. 01 2014 11:29 AM
John A

I can't follow this.
Heck, major philosophical shifts can easily be seen even within the Same language with a clever turn of phrase. The lefts 'A woman's right to choose' and the rights 'Death taxes' (and whatever else you can grab from the GOPAC playbook) have done much to change society, and to dubious effect.

May. 01 2014 10:40 AM

Brian – Why do you call McWhorter “provocative”? Is it because he will use and explore language in a much more interesting, thoughtful and less predictable way than the racially inflammatory 1960’s/Al Sharptonesque language bombs that Clinton Yates and Wesley Morris scorched us with on this show earlier this week?

(But, in their defense, that was why Brian put them on the show and that was their assigned roles.)

Are liberal white boys not comfortable with African-Americans like McWhorter who rise above the usual tedious victim posture? Lefties continue to demand a “real conversation about race” when they want NOTHING of the kind - just the usual stereotypes.

May. 01 2014 10:36 AM

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