Thursday, May 26, 2005

Colours cross the language barrier

Research reported in today's Guardian seems to contradict one of the main planks of the linguistic determinism theory (the strong version of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis that suggests language controls the way we think). According to the report, it doesn't matter which language you speak, you'll probably have the same perception of colour. A fundamental plank of linguistic determinism was a belief that if colour terms were missing from a language the speaker's perception of colours would be different: in other words, speakers of different languages may indeed see the world in different ways.

But according to Paul Kay, a believer in "universalism" and the author of the research used in The Guardian article:

"people perceive colors the same way around the world, no matter what labels they attach. Every culture tends to partition colors into dark and light categories and come up with names in a fixed order."
(quoted in an article from The Baltimore Sun last year)

In the latest research The Guardian tells us that "scientists asked people from 100 societies to name the colours on 330 different-coloured chips. Regardless of the language spoken or the society they lived in, they all grouped the colours into an average of six basic groups that clustered around the colours English speakers identify as black, white, red, yellow, green and blue".

So is that the end of linguistic determinism? Well, not really. A report in New Scientist last year offered some support for the theory:

"Hunter-gatherers from the Pirahã tribe, whose language only contains words for the numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study.

"Experts agree that the startling result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts. So-called “linguistic determinism” was first proposed in 1950 but has been hotly debated ever since."

In this experiment, it would appear that not having terms for numbers above two does affect thought. But as the article goes on to say:

"...scientists are far from a consensus. One points out that there could be other reasons, aside from pure language, why the Pirahã could not distinguish accurately for higher numbers including not being used to dealing with large numbers or set such tasks.

“The question remains highly controversial,” says psychologist Randy Gallistel of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. “But this work will spark a great deal of discussion.”

Useful for:
ENA1 Language and Representation
ENA6 Language Debates

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