The American Spectator tries to write about language

But their logic gets in the way

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So, apparently the American Spectator is a conservative news magazine. Their About page doesn’t load on Opera (probably IE only), so I’m going off what Wikipedia tells me. While researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I came across a review in the American Spectator of John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Somehow the reviewer, John Derbyshire, claims that McWhorter is too progressive. I mean, I guess everyone is progressive compared to the American right…

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about how to spot a bad article on language and/or linguistics. Here is the first paragraph of the Spectator’s review:

Chinese has an extraordinary number of verbs meaning “carry.” If I carry something on a hanging arm, like a briefcase, the verb is ti; on an outstretched palm, tuo; using both palms, peng; gripped between upper arm and body, xie; in my hand, like a stick, wo; embraced, like a baby, bao; on my back, bei; on my head, ding; on my shoulder, kang; on a pole over my shoulder, tiao; slung on a shoulder pole between two guys, tai….

Whoa! That’s a lotta verbs! I counted 11 and the reviewer wasn’t even done listing them. But hold on a second. How many verbs for carry does English have? According to Thesaurus.com, at least 39.

carry - thesaurus

What gives? Well, this is a bad way to start out an article on language. It’s called the “X words for snow” meme or cliché (aka a snowclone), after the claim that Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, which is supposed to mean that they have some better (or at least different) conception of snow than English speakers.

If you think about it for a second though, you can see why this idea is nonsense. First, languages divide and combine words differently. So whereas English doesn’t have a single word for ice hockey, Finnish does (it’s jääkiekko, literally a compound noun of jää “ice” and kiekko “puck/hockey”). But English speakers in Canada seem to have as firm a grasp on what ice hockey is all about as Finnish speakers in Finland. The inverse of the trope above is called the “No words for X” meme.

Second, what really counts as a word meaning “carry”? I could skate the puck into the zone in hockey or run the ball into the end zone in American football. In both cases I would be “carrying” the puck or the ball, but would you consider “carry” as part of the meaning of skate or run? I doubt it. Context can fill in a lot in language. And some languages might have a grammatical marker that means “carry” – so not a word word, like the word “word,” but a morpheme that you can attach to other words, as English does with –ed to indicate the past tense. Or think about how French forms a negative using the “word” pas, which comes from the word meaning step, but is now required to grammatically form the negative (so much so that you can leave off the negative particle ne in French, but not the pas).

Third, if it’s true that speakers of a language have some better conception of something because their language has a bunch of words for it, then surely that only works for the speakers who know those words. It doesn’t matter how many words Chinese has for “carry” – if a Chinese speaker doesn’t know those words, then they are useless. You can can sometimes fill in the blanks based on context, but this idea places too much importance on the words of a language and removes other factors relevant to language, such as speakers’ pragmatic and semantic knowledge or skills. (I have to also say that it’s interesting that the reviewer in the Spectator doesn’t say which dialect of Chinese he’s talking about. I know from reading about Chinese that there isn’t really one Chinese language and that some of the dialects are farther apart than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. I guess he’s talking about Standard Mandarin Chinese? If you know more, leave a comment.)

There are other reasons that the Spectator’s opening paragraph is nonsense, but that should get you started. If you want to know more, McWhorter’s book delves into this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The reviewer in the Spectator tries to engage with McWhorter’s claims, but falls flat by saying things like the differences in language are “biological in origin,” that the differences in the ways language marks things cannot be chance, and that McWhorter is a “fanatically extreme egalitarian protesting too much,” something I don’t think anyone except the American right would or could accuse him of.