05 November 2010

Languages determine what we think

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (either the strong or the weak version) is still not quite accepted by many scholars, for reasons I cannot understand, unless it's the old "my language is the best language in the whole wide world and can do anything your language can do" syndrome.  You can enjoy a light treatment of the hypothesis (without the jargon of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and other academics) in "5 Insane Ways Words Can Control Your Mind" by Sam Cooper of cracked.com.  Here's an excerpt, dealing with the familiar color issue:


It Makes People Who Speak Russian See More Colors Than You
Everyone's perception of colors should be the same. We have the same retinal structure due to evolution and the same wavelengths of light shooting at us.

Illustrated here, probably.
Yet somewhere, right now, there is a young couple at Home Depot looking at little cards with paint colors on them. The woman holds up four cards to her husband and says, "Do you like the eggshell, ivory, cream or bone?" at which point he looks at the cards, all of which are white, and says, "You're messing with me, right?"

"And what's all this 'taupe' bullshit?"
She's not. Experiments have found that whether or not you can register a color depends on whether or not you have a name for it in your language. You can see the color, it just doesn't register in your mind.
One study compared some young children from England with kids from a tribe in Nambia. In the English language, young kids usually learn 11 basic colors (black, white, gray, red, green, blue, yellow, pink, orange, purple and brown) but in Himba it's only five. For instance, they lump red, orange and pink together and call it "serandu."

We don't know what they call that hairstyle, but we call it "awesome."
If you showed the Himba toddler a pink card and then later showed him a red one and ask if they're the same card, the kid would often mistakenly say yes -- because they're both "serandu." Same as if you showed you "Eggshell" and an hour later showed you "Bone" and asked if it was the same card from before. Now, again, they can see the colors; if you hold up a pink card and a red card next to each other, the English kid and Himba kid both would say they're different. But not when they see them one at a time.
But if you teach him the new names for the colors, that one is "pink" and the other is "red," from then on he can identify them when seen by themselves, without the other one for comparison. Same as the girl or interior decorator who can immediately identify "eggshell" as distinct from "ivory" the moment she sees it on a wall, while her boyfriend couldn't do it with a gun to his head. The ability to recognize the color comes with having a name for it.

Also, with giving a shit.
Likewise, Turkish and Russian both split what we call "blue" into two different colors, for the darker and lighter shades. Therefore they consistently do a better job than English speakers when given the same "is this blue card the same as the last blue card" test. Even weirder, when testing the Russians they found that by giving them a verbal distraction (making them try to memorize a string of numbers while doing the color test) the advantage disappeared. It was the language part of their brain that was helping them "see" the color.  (END OF EXCERPT)

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