Amazon Responds to Reader Complaints in Hachette Dispute

GalleyCat reports that Amazon, which is in a pricing dispute with Hachette and has delayed delivery of Hachette titles or made them unavailable, has responded to reader complaints in a Kindle forum. On Hachette titles unavailable for pre-order:

We are currently buying less (print) inventory and “safety stock” on titles from the publisher, Hachette, than we ordinarily do, and are no longer taking pre-orders on titles whose publication dates are in the future. Instead, customers can order new titles when their publication date arrives. For titles with no stock on hand, customers can still place an order at which time we order the inventory from Hachette — availability on those titles is dependent on how long it takes Hachette to fill the orders we place. Once the inventory arrives, we ship it to the customer promptly. These changes are related to the contract and terms between Hachette and Amazon.

On the dispute:

Negotiating with suppliers for equitable terms and making stocking and assortment decisions based on those terms is one of a bookseller’s, or any retailer’s, most important jobs. Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer. It’s reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly. A retailer can feature a supplier’s items in its advertising and promotional circulars, “stack it high” in the front of the store, keep small quantities on hand in the back aisle, or not carry the item at all, and bookstores and other retailers do these every day. When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers. Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term.

And on the effect the dispute has had on Hachette authors:

We also take seriously the impact it has when, however infrequently, such a business interruption affects authors. We’ve offered to Hachette to fund 50% of an author pool – to be allocated by Hachette – to mitigate the impact of this dispute on author royalties, if Hachette funds the other 50%. We did this with the publisher Macmillan some years ago. We hope Hachette takes us up on it.

Hachette responds:

Authors, with whom we at Hachette have been partners for nearly two centuries, engage in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.  In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment, and connection.  By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good.  They are not.

We will spare no effort to resume normal business relations with Amazon—which has been a great partner for years—but under terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them, at the same time that it recognizes Amazon’s importance as a retailer and innovator.


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The Art of Writing Well

F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons
F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fortnightly Review has put together a nice dossier on the French writer Remy de Gourmont, a contemporary of Alfred Jarry who influenced both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Gourmont’s most important critical work is The Problem of Style (1902)—a response to Antoine Albalat’s The Art of Writing in Twenty Lessons (1899), which, like many writing manuals, proposes to teach readers how to write well by providing annotated examples of good prose and poetry, lists of clichés to avoid, and so forth.

The context of Gourmont’s Problème is important. Albalat had argued that style is entirely the result of imitating writers of “taste”: “One should always have in front of oneself,” Albalat writes, “the great classical models. One should obsess over their thought, their form, their style…And ask, following Longinus: How would Homer have said this?”

Gourmont will have none of this:

No. This is absurd…One should ask oneself [rather]: How do I feel this, how do I see this? And ignore the Greeks, the Romans, the Classics, and the Romantics. When he is writing, a writer should not concern himself with either his masters or his style. If he sees, if he feels, if he says something, it will either be interesting or not, beautiful or mediocre, but he must take a chance. But to try and trick the ignorant or the stupid by cunningly using a few famous lines? It’s dirty work and a stupid attitude! Style is feeling, seeing thinking, and nothing more.

Albalat’s Art of Writing is, at times, overly simplistic, and Gourmont is right to skewer his advice to mindlessly imitate Homer. But Gourmont’s response also goes too far in associating style with personal experience. This obscures what writers gain by reading others and the importance of looking not only inward, but outward. As T.S. Eliot put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is, in part, a response to Gourmont, “if the only form of tradition… consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” But the poet “must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen…the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past.”

Furthermore, Gourmont’s emphasis on the individuality of style in one of the many selections excerpted at Fortnightly leads him to make a false distinction between two kinds of writers and readers:

The writer with an abstract style is almost always a sentimentalist, at least a sensitive. The artist-writer is hardly ever sentimental and very rarely a sensitive; that is to say, he incorporates all his sensibility in his style, and has very little left for life and the profound passions. The one takes a ready-made phrase or writes a facile phrase wherein, deceived by his own emotion, he thinks there is an emotive value; the other takes words which are merely handfuls, constructs the limbs of his work and erects a statue which whether beautiful or ugly, heavy or winged, will yet keep in its attitude some of the life which animated the hands by which it was moulded. Nevertheless the vulgar will feel more emotion from the banal phrase than from the original phrase; and this will be the counterproof: to the reader who draws his emotions from the very substance of what he reads is opposed the reader who only feels what he reads to the extent that he can apply it to his own life, to his griefs, to his hopes. He who enjoys the literary beauty of a sermon by Bossuet cannot be touched by it religiously, and he who weeps for the death of Ophelia has no aesthetic sense. These two parallel categories of writers and readers constitute the two great types of cultivated humanity. In spite of shades and over-lappings, no understanding is possible between them; they despise each other, for they do not understand each other. Their animosity extends in two wide, sometimes subterranean, streams throughout literary history.

There’s something to Gourmont’s view that abstraction, which includes jargon and clichés, and sentimentality go hand in hand. Abstract words are vague and capable of evoking an emotion that may or may not be warranted in a particular context or circumstance. Sentimentality is a feeling that is inconsonant with the event that produced it.

Gourmont is wrong, however, that readers who weep “for the death of Ophelia” have “no aesthetic sense” and that those who are touched by the beauty of a sermon can learn no dogma from it. This is silly and makes imaginative writing the domain of specialists whose interest in it is merely technical. If “for ‘the intellectual’ everything is in the manner in which the subject is treated,” as Gourmont states, God save us from intellectuals.

Throughout Problème, Gourmont refuses to distinguish between style and thought—one is the other. Again, there is something to this. Good writing, he states, is “irrefutable.” At the same time, “Nothing perishes more quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigorous thought.”

But, again, he goes too far when he writes that “style and thought are the same.” This wrongly elevates originality (which is almost always what Gourmont means by “style”) to a degree that in practice diminishes the importance of truth and emotion in a work of art. Gourmont could care less about truth. “Truth tyrannizes,” he writes, “doubt liberates.” But, contra Gourmont’s self-defeating praise of it, doubt has proven just as tyrannical in art and literature as any number of other false truths. Nothing, it sometimes seems, can be expressed today in certain circles with authentic feeling without the risk of being labeled simplistic or naïve.

Furthermore, Gourmont’s principles of originality and doubt are just as susceptible to being gamed as Albalat’s classical ones are. If writers who imitate Albalat’s classical style can dupe readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile by an allusion here or a turn of phrase there, they can also, following Gourmont’s creed of originality, trick readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile because it seems new or shocking. While Gourmont argues, as noted above, that “style unsupported by…vigorous thought” perishes quickly, the problem is as long as the thinking remains squishy, the ashes of bad writing will continue to give birth to bad writing.

Elsewhere Gourmont writes:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer’s capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated.

While this may have been necessary over a hundred years ago, it’s terrible advice for our self-absorbed, rule-breaking, originality-obsessed age.

There is no formula for writing well, no one, unchanging definition of good writing, and no such thing as pure originality. In my own limited experience, reading well has been important (reading all of Derrida—yes, all, at least at the time—nearly ruined my prose), but it probably was not as important as writing often and allowing editors and colleagues I trust to rip an essay or article to shreds. The latter is essential—at least for aspiring nonfiction writers. Writers who refuse to submit their work to others for criticism almost always remain failed writers.

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Getting Rid of Tolerance

Over at The Chronicle Review, Suzanna Danuta Walters has a piece on gay rights and tolerance that shows, if nothing else, how fighting for gay rights has become a religion–and a particularly extreme one–to some folks:

In truth, I couldn’t have imagined the world we live in now—some of us, that is, here in America. The changes have been well documented. In media, Orange Is the New Black reigns, and queers increasingly pop up in everyday dramas and award-winning comedies. In politics, more gays and lesbians are in local and national office, and antidiscrimination laws are de rigueur for the Fortune 500 and some municipalities. In our private lives, earnest heterosexuals declare their support for gay rights and their fondness for their gay friends, neighbors, family members. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed, and marriage equality seems to have won the day, prompting more than one blogger to note that it’s fashionable to support gay marriage.

I could go on. But that story is oft told. A familiar narrative of inevitable progress, it wraps us in a warm blanket of American exceptionalism. Pundits and pollsters declare, with more unanimity than is typical in political prognostications, that the end of homophobia is just around the corner. Breathless tales of the triumph of tolerance and self-satisfied encomiums on our post-gay new world dominate our national discourse, with dissenting voices to be found only on the wary queer left and the furious Christian right. For most, marriage + military inclusion + a few queers on TV = rainbow nirvana.

But it isn’t, Walters argues. The problem is that we still allow religious individuals to think that homosexuality is wrong. As a culture we encourage these folks to “tolerate” homosexuality, but, Walters writes, “the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with.” And since there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, the only right response is acceptance:

Tolerance is not just a low bar; it actively undercuts robust integration and social belonging by allowing the warp and woof of anti-gay animus to go unchallenged. Tolerance allows us to celebrate (hysterically) the coming out of macho professional athletes as a triumphant sign of liberation rather than a sad commentary on the persistence of the closet and the hold of masculinist ideals. Tolerance allows religious “objections” to queer lives to remain in place, even as it claims that a civilized society leaves its homos alone. Tolerance pushes for marriage equality and simultaneously assures anxious allies that it won’t change their marriages or their lives.

Tolerance allows “anti-gay animus to go unchallenged”? Really? In reality, what it does is allow folks who disagree with Walters to voice that disagreement—something she seems unable to stomach—so she proposes we get rid of tolerance itself.

This is the way of religious extremism. There is nothing wrong with holding that my beliefs are true and yours are false, or even that people who disagree with me are willfully, irrationally, satanically, espousing a lie. Where things start to go south is when I demand that others recant or suffer the consequences because their disbelief is an offense to the great deity. Danuta does not quite take this very last step (she does call for religious objectors to drop all objections), but once tolerance has been thrown out, what’s to stop her, or anyone else, from punishing us “stubborn” gay deniers?

What’s interesting, too, is that she also argues against the idea (and rightly so in my view) that homosexuality is genetically determined, which makes the link between this particular strand of gay rights advocacy and religion even stronger. Homosexuality should be accepted not because it is a genetic predisposition but because, well, it is right and good. While she writes that “Difference…makes a difference,” what she actually argues for is a nation united in its love of gayness—a true “rainbow nirvana” where all differences are allowed, except one.

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Let’s Scrap the Commencement Address

So says Casey N. Cep:

No graduation is complete, it seems, without a speech somewhere between sagacious and slapstick. But it was only the in the 19th century that such special orations became popular. Harvard didn’t invite its first outside commencement speaker until 1831, when the theologian Richard Whately spoke. The University of Michigan did away with student speeches entirely in 1878, instead inviting the Honorable George V.N. Lothrop to deliver “A Plea for Education As a Public Duty.” In the decades since, schools around the country have turned commencement into a competition for the most accomplished or at least celebrated speaker.

* * *

These speeches are by definition mostly affirming, only a little moralizing, and always 30 minutes or less. The commencement address had its heyday, of course; for a few years, figures of political importance used the occasion to announce major policy initiatives: Secretary of State George Marshall unveiling the Marshall Plan at Harvard in 1947, President John F. Kennedy calling for a nuclear test ban treaty at American University in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson introducing the Great Society in 1964 at the University of Michigan.

But those days have passed, and the commencement speeches most beloved now are the secular sermons, designed not to challenge or change, but only to sooth and entertain. Even last year’s celebrated speech at Syracuse University by the writer George Saunders, a speech that I loved and have returned to several times, could easily be mistaken for a few pages of Chicken Soup for the Graduating Soul. “Down through the ages,” Saunders’s speech begins, “a tradition form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him … gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them.”

Yes, let’s get rid of the invited speaker who costs $100,000, but let’s keep an address, either by a student or a faculty member. Graduation wouldn’t be graduation if attendees didn’t have to suffer a bit. And who knows, a faculty or student speaker doesn’t have a public speaking gig to protect and just might–might–say something interesting.

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No, Joyce Carol Oates Should Not Leave Twitter

She’s too damn entertaining.

Earlier this week, Michelle Dean wrote an open letter to Oates encouraging her to delete her Twitter account:

Here is the problem with your Twitter feed, Joyce Carol Oates: It is, as we like to say on the internet, the worst. You fundamentally misunderstand the medium. Your continued presence there does nothing but undermine your own authority and annoy other people. You should delete your Twitter account.

You might think that I offer this bit of public advice because I dislike you and/or your work. That is not true! I am very fond of several of your novels. I am especially into that famous short story of yours entitled, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I like the way your sentences are long and languid, and I like the way they sometimes double back on themselves. I like that the thoughts in them have not been truncated to meet some kind of arbitrarily-imposed standard about length.

I believe that you are smart enough to see what I am getting at, Joyce Carol Oates. Expertise in one form of writing does not necessarily mean mastery of them all. When it comes to writing long books, formulated in multiple pages and paragraphs, every sentence read in context with the one preceding it, you are pretty good at that, better than most of us can ever hope to be. But when you offer disconnected, abbreviated, context-free thoughts, say like the above beliefs about cat food and China, you are not so good.

But one reason I enjoy Twitter is for the “disconnected, abbreviated, context-free thoughts” of people like Oates who regularly remind us how weird…



and insightful…

people are. Please, Joyce Carol Oates, stay.

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Weekend Epigram

Pyrrhonian Love
Jean-François Dreux du Radier

I hate you, I love you; and when so feeling
My cluttered heart knows nothing:
Yet, knowing nothing, it hates you, it loves you,
And nothing surpasses (alas!) the pains I feel.

Je vous hais, je vous aime ; et dans ses sentiments
Mon coeur embarrassé ne connaît rien lui-même :
Mais sans y rien connaître, il vous hait, il vous aime,
Et rien n’égale, hélas ! les peines que je sens.

Jean-François Dreux du Radier (1714-1780) was a lawyer from Chateauneuf en Thymerais and claimed to be a member of academies in Lyon, Rouen, Angers, and others, as well as of the Royal Society of Agriculture of Alençon. He was known for his translations of the satires of Persius.

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One More Time Around the Neuroaesthetic Barn

Over at The Scientist, Anjan Chatterjee argues that neuroaesthetics helps to advance “our understanding of how humans process beauty and art.”

Neuroaesthetics tells us, for example, that artists often represent aspects of light or motion that we can’t see with naked eye and that artists exaggerate forms for emphasis. It tells us that brain damage can effect how painters paint and that different kinds of paintings activate different parts of the brain. (“Portraits activate the ‘face area’ in the fusiform gyrus and landscape paintings activate the “place area” in the parahippocampal.”)  It has also “discovered” that images of beauty produce pleasure: “The pleasure that people derive from viewing objects they find beautiful taps into our brain’s reward circuitry.”

In short, yes, neuroaesthetics may tell us a great deal about how “humans process art,” but this tells us almost nothing about art and its importance to human beings. In fact, the one thing that would be worth knowing—why art produces the emotions it does—Chatterjee admits neuroscience can’t explain.

Well, good on him, at least, for his honesty.

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Popularity, Art, and North of Boston


Robert Frost’s second volume of poems, North of Boston, was published in England one hundred years ago by David Nutt and Company (which, in turn, was run by the penny-pinching Mrs. Alfred Nutt, whom Frost came to loathe). The volume is often considered Frost’s masterpiece, containing “Home Burial,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and many other of his best poems. It was universally praised in England, and proved popular with the American public when it was distributed by Henry Holt in 1915.

In his letters, Frost claimed the book was “epoch making.” It wasn’t. Poems, sadly, don’t make epochs, though some contribute to and reflect an age more than others. Two years after North of Boston was published, Frost told Louis Untermeyer that “The poet in me died nearly ten years ago.” He adds (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that “Fortunately he had run through several phases, four to be exact, all well-defined before he went.”

While it may be tempting to line these four phases up with Frost’s four major books of poetry, it is more interesting, I think, to see Frost’s view of poetry as a gift and a craft in this confession. Frost wrote much of his poetry on his own with little hope of either fame or fortune. He mostly eschewed literary trends and was concerned, when his poems began to sell, how his popularity might affect his art.

Of course, Frost once remarked that “Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” But as with much else, context is everything. The remark appears twice in his early letters. On June, 1915, he wrote:

Do you know, I think that a book ought to sell. Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial. Mind you I don’t put it that everything commercial is honest.

A few letters later, Frost returned to the idea:

All I insist on is that nothing is quite honest that is not commercial. You must take that as said in character. Of course I don’t mean by that that it isn’t true. Nothing is true except as a man or men adhere to it—to live for it, to spend themselves on it, to die for it. Not to argue for it! There’s no greater mistake than to look on fighting as a form of argument. To fight is to leave words and act as if you believed—to act as if you believed. Sometimes I have my doubts of words altogether and I ask myself what is the place of them. They are worse than nothing unless they do something, unless they amount to deeds as in ultimatums and war crys [sic]. They must be flat and final like the showdown in poker from which there is no appeal. My definition of literature would be just this, words that have become deeds.

The distinction Frost makes here is between poetry that people live to read and poetry that people merely argue over.

Frost may very well have had Pound in mind here. Pound, as was not uncommon among the so-called avant-garde, regularly railed against capitalism and the middle class, which had somehow sullied art’s purity. Frost saw this as posturing. He complained that Pound tried to drag him “into his ridiculous row” with America and scorned Pound’s concern “to dress the part of poet.” “Someone says,” he wrote to Ernest Silver, “that he looks altogether too much like a poet to be a poet. He lives in Bohemia from hand to mouth but he goes simply everywhere in great society.” (Pound would later call Frost “a bloated capitalist,” though he always wrote favorably of Frost’s poetry.)

Frost could put on a bit of a show, too, but his longing for popularity, at least in principle, was not for popularity or renown itself, but for what that popularity meant—that what he had written was art.

Whether or not this is true for all art, it certainly is for North of Boston.

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The Poet as Civil Servant

If you are not familiar with Patrick Kurp’s excellent Anecdotal Evidence blog, you should be. Every weekday he looks at a passage, a writer, or both, and offers a short reflection or association that is consistently interesting and a great way to start your morning or lunch hour.

Yesterday, he highlighted a couple of remarks from the late Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll, who worked in the Dublin tax office most of his life and wrote poetry on the side. “I have always regarded myself,” O’Driscoll wrote in his essay “Sing for the Taxman,” “as a civil servant rather than a ‘poet’ or ‘artist’—words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.”  Elsewhere:

My belief is that if you look after the language, then the politics will look after itself. If you take the care and trouble to represent things precisely as you perceive them, literally and imaginatively, you will have discharged any obligation to society which you may have. To arrogate to yourself some larger role as seer or clairvoyant is to succumb to a deluded megalomania of a kind which is endemic in the literary world.

Kurp quips: “No utopian blather, just uncommon common sense from an unlikely source—a poet.” Yes. May more poets devote themselves to clarity, precision, beauty, and forget about being or becoming a Poet, as hard as that might be; and may more critics give the work of the O’Driscolls of the world the attention that work deserves.

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Does Language Shape How We View the World?

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Construction of the Tower of Babel, via Wikimedia Commons
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Construction of the Tower of Babel, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930s, Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered that the Native American language Hopi had no time or tense markers—no word for later or before, no grammar to refer to past or future events or actions. He suggested that, because of this, the Hopi people do not experience time as we do. For the Hopi, events don’t take place in the past or in the future, they recur, and Whorf posited that the cyclical view of time in Hopi cosmology was a result of this aspect of their language.

Whorf, it turns out, was wrong. Hopi does mark tense. But his work on Hopi was part of what would become known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It was not a new idea, but Whorf stated its relativistic principles forcefully. In his words, language “builds the house” of our “consciousness.”

You have probably come across Whorfianism in some form or another. For example, perhaps someone has argued that because Eskimos have 50 words for snow and 70 words for ice, they experience these phenomena differently than non-Eskimos; or that because Russian has no word for blue alone (it has one for light blue and one for dark blue), Russians experience art differently than non-Russians; or that because in the Amazon language Tuyuca there are built-in evidential markers (i.e., “I heard…” or “…it is said”), the Tuyuca are particularly critical of what others say and do.

It is an intriguing idea that promises to explain differences—perhaps even religious ones—with a pat cause-and-effect argument. But as John H. McWhorter argues in The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in any Language, from which many of the above examples are drawn, it is almost entirely false.

McWhorter argues (convincingly in my view) that language has only a minor effect on cognition and no effect on a person’s view of the world—that is, in this case, how humans understand time, causality, color, space, and so forth.

Whorfianism is a bold proposition regarding the power of language. Yet, as McWhorter notes, much of language is rather inconsequential with respect to how and what we think. For example, in English we use both adjectives of distance and quantity to modify time (“long time” and “a lot of time”) but the Spanish use mostly adjectives of quantity (“mucho tiempo”). Does this mean that the Spanish think of time as stuff and the English think of it primarily as a distance, and that this has some real effect on how the Spanish or English see the world? Unlikely. In French, it is as it is English, and Italian is like the Spanish. What common trait do Italians and Spanish (or the French and English) share because of how they refer to time? There is none.

Furthermore, if a language shapes our view of the world, are we able to think of things for which we have no word? According to the popularized version of Sapir-Whorf, the answer would have to be no, but clearly we are able to do so. McWhorter writes that Greek has no evidential markers like in Tuyuca. Does that mean Greeks can’t evaluate the words or actions of others critically? In Swedish, there is no word for “wipe.” In English, there is no word for the French “frileux.” But certainly the Swedes know what it means to wipe one’s nose and the English know what it is to be susceptible to the cold. Conversely, tribes that have never used clothes, unsurprisingly have no words for hat, robe or shirt. But it is not the lack of these words that has  prevented these people from thinking in terms of dress, but the lack of clothes that has made words for them unnecessary.

It’s worth pointing out that McWhorter’s argument here is not so much against contemporary studies of the effect of language on cognition, which are carefully structured to avoid overreaching, as it is against the spin on these studies in the press. Though McWhorter calls into question the importance of such studies, too.

It has been shown, for example, that Russians are indeed quicker than non-Russian speakers at differentiating between light blue and dark blue because they have specific words for these two colors. How much faster? One hundred and twenty-four milliseconds, or one tenth of a second faster. Does this count as language shaping thought? It’s clear enough that having words for particular phenomena makes it easier to identify those phenomena, and so language would seem to have some effect on thought, but to call it “shaping” is to overstate the effect.

So if language does not change how we view the world, why do languages develop in the way they do? While it’s not the most exciting answer, according to McWhorter, there is no reason. Language, he writes, is random: “Worldwide, chance is, itself, the only real pattern evident in the link between languages and what their speakers are like.”

Cultures differ greatly, of course, and exercise a powerful influence on how we see the world, but the grammar of a language is not the same as culture, and McWhorter makes a convincing case for putting at least the popularized form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis out to pasture.

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