I have already discussed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, admitting that I don’t have the faintest idea whether it’s true or not but hoping for research that might do more to answer the question than the ex cathedra statements of linguists. Imagine my surprise when the NY Times tries to settle the question by consulting the ex cathedra statements of linguists—in this case, one particular linguist, the media’s current darling, Steven Pinker. Now, Pinker is a smart guy (and a brilliant self-promoter, not that there’s anything wrong with that), but he subscribes to a linguistic theory that holds that all languages are essentially cosmetic variants, identical below the surface. Regardless of whether you think that’s plausible or not (regular readers of this site will know that I come down on the “not” side), to ask an adherent of it to judge the validity of Sapir-Whorf is like asking an atheist to judge the validity of the Pope’s infallibility. The Times might (I’m stretching here) ask an atheist for an opinion, but certainly wouldn’t allow it to carry their implicit imprimatur, as they do with Pinker. But this is no surprise; the surprise would be if the newspaper that employs William Safire as its language guru suddenly got a clue about these matters.
By the way, the main focus of the Times article is not Sapir-Whorf but a book that’s just come out, The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity by William C. Hannas, “a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.” Mr. Hannas (to adopt the Times‘s immutable form of reference—they legendarily referred to the singer Meat Loaf as “Mr. Loaf”) claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems. (Note to the Times: “character-based writing system” is not the same thing as “syllabary.”) According to him (if the Times summary is correct), “because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity.” This seems unlikely to me. What is likely, though it goes unmentioned in the article, is that the writing systems based on characters, which take much more time and effort to learn than alphabets, hamper literacy in general, and if China (to take the biggest country involved) switched over completely to pinyin romanization, literacy rates would skyrocket (true literacy, not the minimal ability China’s official statistics are based on) and there would be a much larger base of potential scientists and inventors. But don’t hold your breath; there’s a lot of cultural capital invested in those beautiful, inefficient characters.