“…there resides in every language a characteristic world-view”

“Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view. As the individual sound stands between man and the object, so the entire language steps in between him and the nature that operates, both inwardly and outwardly, upon him. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds, so as to take up and process within himself the world of objects. These expressions in no way outstrip the measure of the simple truth. Man lives primarily with objects, indeed, since feeling and acting in him depend on his presentations, he actually does so exclusively, as language presents them to him. By the same act whereby he spins language out of himself, he spins himself into it, and every language draws about the people that possesses it a circle whence it is possible to exit only by stepping over at once into the circle of another one. To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”

Wilhelm von Humboldt
On Language (1836)

* * *

Wilhelm von Humboldt
from Wikipedia

Wilhelm von Humboldt
from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Wilhelm von Humboldt lectures
from Université de Rouen

Wilhelm von Humbold and the World of Languages
by Ian F. McNeely

Wilhelm von Humboldt: A Critical Review On His Philosophy of Language, Theory and Practice of Education
by Dr Arlini Alias

The theory of linguistic relativity from the historical perspective
by Iaroslav

Straw Men in the Linguistic Imaginary

“For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?”
~ Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct

Portraying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as linguistic determinism is a straw man fallacy. It’s false to speak of a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at all as no such hypothesis was ever proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Interestingly, it turns out that researchers have since found examples of what could be called linguistic determinism or at least very strong linguistic relativity, although still apparently rare (similar to how examples of genetic determinism are rare). But that is neither here nor there, considering Sapir and Whorf didn’t argue for linguistic determinism, no matter how you quote-mine their texts. The position of relativity, similar to social constructivism, is the wholesale opposite of rigid determinism — besides, linguistic relativism wasn’t even a major focus of Sapir’s work even as he influenced Whorf.

Turning their view into a caricature of determinism was an act of projection. It was the anti-relativists who were arguing for biology determining language, from Noam Chomsky’s language module in the brain to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s supposedly universal color categories. It was masterful rhetoric to turn the charge onto those holding the moderate position in order to dress them up as ideologial extremists and charlatans. And with Sapir and Whorf gone from early deaths, they weren’t around to defend themselves and to deny what was claimed on their behalf.

Even Whorf’s sometimes strongly worded view of relativity, by today’s standards and knowledge in the field, doesn’t sound particularly extreme. If anything, to those informed of the most up-to-date research, denying such obvious claims would now sound absurd. How did so many become disconnected from simple truths of human experience that anyone who dared speak these truths could be ridiculed and dismissed out of hand? For generations, relativists stating common sense criticisms of race realism were dismissed in a similar way, and they were often the same people (cultural relativity and linguistic relativity in American scholarship was influenced by Franz Boas) — the argument tying them together is that relativity in expression and emodiment of our shared humanity (think of it more in terms of Daniel Everett’s dark matter of the mind) is based on a complex and flexible set of universal potentials, such that universalism doesn’t require nor indicate essentialism. Yet why do we go on clinging to so many forms of determinism, essentialism, and nativism, including those ideas advocated by many of Sapir and Whorf’s opponents?

We are in a near impossible situation, Essentialism has been a cornerstone of modern civilization, most of all in its WEIRD varieties. Relativity simply can’t be fully comprehended, much less tolerated, within the dominant paradigm, although as Leavitt argues it resonates with the emphasis on language found in Romanticism which was a previous response to essentialism. As for linguistic determinism, even if it were true beyond a few exceptional cases, it is by and large an untestable hypothesis at present and so scientifically meaningless within WEIRD science. WEIRD researchers exist in a civilization that has become dominated by WEIRD societies with nearly all alternatives destroyed or altered beyond their original form. There is no where to stand outside of the WEIRD paradigm, especially not the WEIRDest of the WEIRD researchers doing most of the research.

If certain thoughts are unthinkable within WEIRD culture and language, we have no completely alien mode of thought by which to objectively assess the WEIRD, as imperialism and globalization has left no society untouched. There is no way for us to even think about what might be unthinkable, much less research it. This doublebind goes right over the heads of most people, even over the heads of some relativists who fear being disparaged if they don’t outright deny any possibility of the so-called strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. That such a hypothesis potentially could describe reality to a greater extent than we’d prefer is, for most people infected with the WEIRD mind virus and living within the WEIRD monocultural reality tunnel, itself an unthinkable thought.

It is unthinkable and, in its fullest form, fundamentally untestable. And so it is terra incognito within the collective mind. The response is typically either uncomfortable irritation or nervous laughter. Still, the limited evidence in support of linguistic determinism points to the possibility of it being found in other as-of-yet unexplored areas — maybe a fair amount of evidence already exists that will later be reinterpreted when a new frame of understanding becomes established or when someone, maybe generations later, looks at it with fresh eyes. History is filled with moments when something shifted allowing the incomprehensible and unspeakable to become a serious public debate, sometimes a new social reality. Determinism in all of its varieties seems a generally unfrutiful path of research, although in its linguistic form it is compelling as a thought experiment in showing how little we know and can know, how severely constrained is our imaginative capacities.

We don’t look in the darkness where we lost what we are looking for because the light is better elsewhere. But what would we find if we did search the shadows? Whether or not we discovered proof for linguistic determinism, we might stumble across all kinds of other inconvenient evidence pointing toward ever more radical and heretical thoughts. Linguistic relativity and determinism might end up playing a central role less because of the bold answers offered than in the questions that were dared to be asked. Maybe, in thinking about determinism, we could come to a more profound insight of relativity — after all, a complex enough interplay of seemingly deterministic factors would for all appearances be relativistic, that is to say what seen to be linear causation could when lines of causation are interwoven lead to emergent properties. The relativistic whole, in that case, presumably would be greater than the deterministic parts.

Besides, it always depends on perspective. Consider Whorf who “has been rejected both by cognitivists as a relativist and by symbolic and postmodern anthropologists as a determinist and essentialist” (John Leavitt, Linguistic Relativities, p. 193; Leavitt’s book goes into immense detail about all of the misunderstanding and misinterpretation, much of it because of intellectual laziness or hubris  but some of motivated by ideological agendas; the continuing and consistent wrongheadedness makes it difficult to not take much of it as arguing in bad faith). It’s not always clear what the debate is supposed to be about. Ironically, such terms as ‘determinism’ and ‘relativity’ are relativistic in their use while, in how we use them, determining how we think about the issues and how we interpret the evidence. There is no way to take ourselves out of the debate itself for our own humanity is what we are trying to place under the microscope, causing us tremendous psychological contortions in maintaining whatever worldview we latch onto.

There is less distance between linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism than is typically assumed. The former says we are only limited by habit of thought and all it entails within culture and relationships. Yet habits of thought can be so powerful as to essentially determine social orders for centuries and millennia. Calling this mere ‘habit’ hardly does it justice. In theory, a society isn’t absolutely determined to be the way it is nor for those within it to behave the way they do, but in practice extremely few individuals ever escape the gravity pull of habitual conformity and groupthink (i.e., Jaynesian self-authorization is more a story we tell ourselves than an actual description of behavior).

So, yes, in terms of genetic potential and neuroplasticity, there was nothing directly stopping Bronze Age Egyptians from starting an industrial revolution and there is nothing stopping a present-day Piraha from becoming a Harvard professor of mathematics — still, the probability of such things happening is next to zero. Consider the rare individuals in our own society who break free of the collective habits of our society, as they usually either end up homeless or institutionalized, typically with severely shortened lives. To not go along with the habits of your society is to be deemed insane, incompetent, and/or dangerous. Collective habits within a social order involve systematic enculturation, indoctrination, and enforcement. The power of language — even if only relativistic — over our minds is one small part of the cultural system, albeit an important part.

We don’t need to go that far with our argument, though. However you want to splice it, there is plenty of evidence that remains to be explained. And the evidence has become overwhelming and, to many, disconcerting. The debate over the validity of the theory of linguistic relativity is over. But the opponents of the theory have had two basic strategies to contain their loss and keep the debate on life support. They conflate linguistic relativity with linguistic determinism and dismiss it as laughably false. Or they concede that linguistic relativity is partly correct but argue that it’s insignificant in influence, as if they never denied it and simply were unimpressed.

“This is characteristic: one defines linguistic relativity in such an extreme way as to make it seem obviously untrue; one is then free to acknowledge the reality of the data at the heart of the idea of linguistic relativity – without, until quite recently, proposing to do any serious research on these data.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 166)

Either way, essentialists maintain their position as if no serious challenge was posed. The evidence gets lost in the rhetoric, as the evidence keeps growing.

Still, there is something more challenging that also gets lost in debate, even when evidence is acknowledged. What motivated someone like Whorf wasn’t intellectual victory and academic prestige. There was a sense of human potential locked behind habit. That is why it was so important to study foreign cultures with their diverse languages, not only for the sake of knowledge but to be confronted by entirely different worldviews. Essentialists are on the old imperial path of Whiggish Enlightenment, denying differences by proclaiming that all things Western are the norm of humanity and reality, sometimes taken as a universal ideal state or the primary example by which to measure all else… an ideology that easily morphs into yet darker specters:

“Any attempt to speak of language in general is illusory; the (no doubt French or English) philosopher who does so is merely elevating his own mother tongue to the status of a universal standard (p. 3). See how the discourse of diversity can be turned to defend racism and fascism! I suppose by now this shouldn’t surprise us – we’ve seen so many examples of it at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century.” (John Leavit, Linguistic Relativities, p. 161)

In this light, it should be unsurprising that the essentialist program presented in Chomskyan linguistics was supported and funded by the Pentagon (their specific interest in this case being about human-computer interface in eliminating messy human error; in studying the brain as a computer, it was expected that the individual human mind could be made more amenable to a computerized system of military action and its accompanying chain-of-command). Essentialism makes promises that are useful for systems of effective control as part of a larger technocratic worldview of social control.

The essentialist path we’ve been on has left centuries of destruction in its wake. But from the humbling vista opening onto further possibilities, the relativists offer not a mere scientific theory but a new path for humanity or rather they throw light onto the multiple paths before us. In offering respect and openness toward the otherness of others, we open ourselves toward the otherness within our own humanity. The point is that, though trapped in linguistic cultures, the key to our release is also to be found in the same place. But this requires courage and curiosity, a broadening of the moral imagination.

Let me end on a note of irony. In comparing linguistic cultures, Joseph Needham wrote that, “Where Western minds asked ‘what essentially is it?’, Chinese minds asked ‘how is it related in its beginnings, functions, and endings with everything else, and how ought we to react to it?” This was quoted by Jeremy Lent in the Patterning Instinct (p. 206; quote originally from: Science and Civilization in China, vol. 2, History of Scientific Thought, pp. 199-200). Lent makes clear that this has everything to do with language. Chinese language embodies ambiguity and demands contextual understanding, whereas Western or more broadly Indo-European language elicits abstract essentialism.

So, it is a specific linguistic culture of essentialism that influences, if not entirely determines, that Westerners are predisposed to see language as essentialist, rather than as relative. And it is this very essentialism that causes many Westerners, especially abstract-minded intellectuals, to be blind to essentialism as being linguistically cultural, but not essentialist to human nature and neurocognitive functioning. That is the irony. This essentialist belief system is further proof of linguistic relativism.

 

* * *

The Patterning Instinct
by Jeremy Lent
pp. 197-205

The ability of these speakers to locate themselves in a way that is impossible for the rest of us is only the most dramatic in an array of discoveries that are causing a revolution in the world of linguistics. Researchers point to the Guugu Yimithirr as prima facie evidence supporting the argument that the language you speak affects how your cognition develops. As soon as they learn their first words, Guugu Yimithirr infants begin to structure their orientation around the cardinal directions. In time, their neural connections get wired accordingly until this form of orientation becomes second nature, and they no longer even have to think about where north, south, east, and west are.3 […]

For many of us, the idea that the language we speak affects how we think might seem self-evident, hardly requiring a great deal of scientific proof. However, for decades, the orthodoxy of academia has held categorically that the language a person speaks has no effect on the way they think. To suggest otherwise could land a linguist in such trouble that she risked her career. How did mainstream academic thinking get itself in such a straitjacket?4

The answer can be found in the remarkable story of one charismatic individual, Benjamin Whorf. In the early twentieth century, Whorf was a student of anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir, whose detailed study of Native American languages had caused him to propose that a language’s grammatical structure corresponds to patterns of thought in its culture. “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do,” Sapir suggested, “because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”5

Whorf took this idea, which became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to new heights of rhetoric. The grammar of our language, he claimed, affects how we pattern meaning into the natural world. “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do,” he wrote, “largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see.”6 […]

Whorf was brilliant but highly controversial. He had a tendency to use sweeping generalizations and dramatic statements to drive home his point. “As goes our segmentation of the face of nature,” he wrote, “so goes our physics of the Cosmos.” Sometimes he went beyond the idea that language affects how we think to a more strident assertion that language literally forces us to think in a certain way. “The forms of a person’s person’s thoughts,” he proclaimed, “are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious.” This rhetoric led people to interpret the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a theory of linguistic determinism, claiming that people’s thoughts are inevitably determined by the structure of their language.8

A theory of rigid linguistic determinism is easy to discredit. All you need to do is show a Hopi Indian capable of thinking in terms of past, present, and future, and you’ve proven that her language didn’t ordain how she was able to think. The more popular the Sapir-Whorf theory became, the more status could be gained by any researcher who poked holes in it. In time, attacking Sapir-Whorf became a favorite path to academic tenure, until the entire theory became completely discredited.9

In place of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis arose what is known as the nativist view, which argues that the grammar of language is innate to humankind. As discussed earlier, the theory of universal grammar, proposed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and popularized more recently by Steven Pinker, posits that humans have a “language instinct” with grammatical rules coded into our DNA. This theory has dominated the field of linguistics for decades. “There is no scientific evidence,” writes Pinker, “that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking.” Pinker and other adherents to this theory, however, are increasingly having to turn a blind eye—not just to the Guugu Yimithirr but to the accumulating evidence of a number of studies showing the actual effects of language on people’s patterns of thought.10 […]

Psychologist Peter Gordon saw an opportunity to test the most extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with the Pirahã. If language predetermined patterns of thought, then the Pirahã should be unable to count, in spite of the fact that they show rich intelligence in other forms of their daily life. He performed a number of tests with the Pirahã over a two-year period, and his results were convincing: as soon as the Pirahã had to deal with a set of objects beyond three, their counting performance disintegrated. His study, he concludes, “represents a rare and perhaps unique case for strong linguistic determinism.”12

The Guugu Yimithirr, at one end of the spectrum, show the extraordinary skills a language can give its speakers; the Pirahã, at the other end, show how necessary language is for basic skills we take for granted. In between these two extremes, an increasing number of researchers are demonstrating a wide variety of more subtle ways the language we speak can influence how we think.

One set of researchers illustrated how language affects perception. They used the fact that the Greek language has two color terms—ghalazio and ble—that distinguish light and dark blue. They tested the speed with which Greek speakers and English speakers could distinguish between these two different colors, even when they weren’t being asked to name them, and discovered the Greeks were significantly faster.13

Another study demonstrates how language helps structure memory. When bilingual Mandarin-English speakers were asked in English to name a statue of someone with a raised arm looking into the distance, they were more likely to name the Statue of Liberty. When they were asked the same question in Mandarin, they named an equally famous Chinese statue of Mao with his arm raised.14

One intriguing study shows English and Spanish speakers remembering accidental events differently. In English, an accident is usually described in the standard subject-verb-object format of “I broke the bottle.” In Spanish, a reflexive verb is often used without an agent, such as “La botella se rompió”—“the bottle broke.” The researchers took advantage of this difference, asking English and Spanish speakers to watch videos of different intentional and accidental events and later having them remember what happened. Both groups had similar recall for the agents involved in intentional events. However, when remembering the accidental events, English speakers recalled the agents better than the Spanish speakers did.15

Language can also have a significant effect in channeling emotions. One researcher read the same story to Greek-English bilinguals in one language and, then, months later, in the other. Each time, he interviewed them about their feelings in response to the story. The subjects responded differently to the story depending on its language, and many of these differences could be attributed to specific emotion words available in one language but not the other. The English story elicited a sense of frustration in readers, but there is no Greek word for frustration, and this emotion was absent in responses to the Greek story. The Greek version, however, inspired a sense of stenahoria in several readers, an emotion loosely translated as “sadness/discomfort/suffocation.” When one subject was asked why he hadn’t mentioned stenahoria after his English reading of the story, he answered that he cannot feel stenahoria in English, “not just because the word doesn’t exist but because that kind of situation would never arise.”16 […]

Marketing professor David Luna has performed tests on people who are not just bilingual but bicultural—those who have internalized two different cultures—which lend support to this model of cultural frames. Working with people immersed equally in both American and Hispanic cultures, he examined their responses to various advertisements and newspaper articles in both languages and compared them to those of bilinguals who were only immersed in one culture. He reports that biculturals, more than monoculturals, would feel “like a different person” when they spoke different languages, and they accessed different mental frames depending on the cultural context, resulting in shifts in their sense of self.25

In particular, the use of root metaphors, embedded so deeply in our consciousness that we don’t even notice them, influences how we define our sense of self and apply meaning to the world around us. “Metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us,” writes cognitive linguist George Lakoff. “Metaphorical concepts…structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.”26

These metaphors enter our minds as infants, as soon as we begin to talk. They establish neural pathways that are continually reinforced until, just like the cardinal directions of the Guugu Yimithirr, we use our metaphorical constructs without even recognizing them as metaphors. When a parent, for example, tells a child to “put that out of your mind,” she is implicitly communicating a metaphor of the MIND AS A CONTAINER that should hold some things and not others.27

When these metaphors are used to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos, they become the root metaphors that structure a culture’s approach to meaning. Hunter-gatherers, as we’ve seen, viewed the natural world through the root metaphor of GIVING PARENT, which gave way to the agrarian metaphor of ANCESTOR TO BE PROPITIATED. Both the Vedic and Greek traditions used the root metaphor of HIGH IS GOOD to characterize the source of ultimate meaning as transcendent, while the Chinese used the metaphor of PATH in their conceptualization of the Tao. These metaphors become hidden in plain sight, since they are used so extensively that people begin to accept them as fundamental structures of reality. This, ultimately, is how culture and language reinforce each other, leading to a deep persistence of underlying structures of thought from one generation to the next.28

Linguistic Relativities
by John Leavitt
pp. 138-142

Probably the most famous statement of Sapir’s supposed linguistic determinism comes from “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” a talk published in 1929:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language, and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are different worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir 1949: 162)

This is the passage that is most commonly quoted to demonstrate the putative linguistic determinism of Sapir and of his student Whorf, who cites some of it (1956: 134) at the beginning of “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language,” a paper published in a Sapir Festschrift in 1941. But is this linguistic determinism? Or is it the statement of an observed reality that must be dealt with? Note that the passage does not say that it is impossible to translate between different languages, nor to convey the same referential content in both. Note also that there is a piece missing here, between “labels attached” and “We see and hear.” In fact, the way I have presented it, with the three dots, is how this passage is almost always presented (e.g., Lucy 1992a: 22); otherwise, the quote usually ends at “labels attached.” If we look at what has been elided, we find two examples, coming in a new paragraph immediately after “attached.” In a typically Sapirian way, one is poetic, the other perceptual. He begins:

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by the overtones.

So the apparent claim of linguistic determinism is to be illustrated by – a poem (Friedrich 1979: 479–80), and a simple one at that! In light of this missing piece of the passage, what Sapir seems to be saying is not that language determines thought, but that language is part of social reality, and so is thought, and to understand either a thought or “a green thought in a green shade” you need to consider the whole.

The second example is one of the relationship of terminology to classification:

Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. If one draws some dozen lines, for instance, of different shapes, one peceives them as divisible into such categories as “straight,” “crooked,” “curved,” “zigzag” because of the classificatory suggestiveness of the linguistic terms themselves. We see and hear …

Again, is Sapir here arguing for a determination of thought by language or simply observing that in cases of sorting out complex data, one will tend to use the categories that are available? In the latter case, he would be suggesting to his audience of professionals (the source is a talk given to a joint meeting of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Anthropological Association) that such phenomena may extend beyond simple classification tasks.

Here it is important to distinguish between claims of linguistic determinism and the observation of the utility of available categories, an observation that in itself in no way questions the likely importance of the non-linguistic salience of input or the physiological component of perception. Taken in the context of the overall Boasian approach to language and thought, this is clearly the thrust of Sapir’s comments here. Remember that this was the same man who did the famous “Study on Phonetic Symbolism,” which showed that there are what appear to be universal psychological reactions to certain speech sounds (his term is “symbolic feeling-significance”), regardless of the language or the meaning of the word in which these sounds are found (in Sapir 1949). This evidence against linguistic determinism, as it happens, was published the same year as “The Status of Linguistics as a Science,” but in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.3

The metaphor Sapir uses most regularly for the relation of language patterning to thought is not that of a constraint, but of a road or groove that is relatively easy or hard to follow. In Language, he proposed that languages are “invisible garments” for our spirits; but at the beginning of the book he had already questioned this analogy: “But what if language is not so much a garment as a prepared road or groove?” (p. 15); grammatical patterning provides “grooves of expression, (which) have come to be felt as inevitable” (p. 89; cf. Erickson et al. 1997: 298). One important thing about a road is that you can get off it; of a groove, that you can get out of it. We will see that this kind of wording permeates Whorf’s formulations as well. […]

Since the early 1950s, Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) has most often been presented as the very epitome of extreme cognitive relativism and linguistic determinism. Indeed, as the name attached to the “linguistic determinism hypothesis,” a hypothesis almost never evoked but to be denied, Whorf has become both the best-known ethnolinguist outside the field itself and one of the great straw men of the century. This fate is undeserved; he was not a self-made straw man, as Marshall Sahlins once called another well-known anthropologist. While Whorf certainly maintained what he called a principle of linguistic relativity, it is clear from reading Language, Thought, and Reality, the only generally available source of his writings, published posthumously in 1956, and even clearer from still largely unpublished manuscripts, that he was also a strong universalist who accepted the general validity of modern science. With some re-evaluations since the early 1990s (Lucy 1992a; P. Lee 1996), we now have a clearer idea of what Whorf was about.

In spite of sometimes deterministic phraseology, Whorf presumed that much of human thinking and perception was non-linguistic and universal across languages. In particular, he admired Gestalt psychology (P. Lee 1996) as a science giving access to general characteristics of human perception across cultures and languages, including the lived experiences that lie behind the forms that we label time and space. He puts this most clearly in discussions of the presumably universal perception of visual space:

A discovery made by modern configurative or Gestalt psychology gives us a canon of reference, irrespective of their languages or scientific jargons, by which to break down and describe all visually observable situations, and many other situations, also. This is the discovery that visual perception is basically the same for all normal persons past infancy and conforms to definite laws. (Whorf 1956: 165)

Whorf clearly believed there was a real world out there, although, enchanted by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, he also believed that this was not the world as we conceive it, nor that every human being conceives it habitually in the same way.

Whorf also sought and proposed general descriptive principles for the analysis of languages of the most varied type. And along with Sapir, he worked on sound symbolism, proposing the universality of feeling-associations to certain speech sounds (1956: 267). Insofar as he was a good disciple of Sapir and Boas, Whorf believed, like them, in the universality of cognitive abilities and of some fundamental cognitive processes. And far from assuming that language determines thought and culture, Whorf wrote in the paper for the Sapir volume that

I should be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as “a correlation” between culture and language, and especially between ethnological rubrics such as “agricultural, hunting,” etc., and linguistic ones like “inflected,” “synthetic,” or “isolating.” (pp. 138–9)

pp. 146

For Whorf, certain scientific disciplines – elsewhere he names “relativity, quantum theory, electronics, catalysis, colloid chemistry, theory of the gene, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, unbiased cultural anthropology, and so on” (1956: 220), as well as non-Euclidean geometry and, of course, descriptive linguistics – were exemplary in that they revealed aspects of the world profoundly at variance with the world as modern Westerners habitually assume it to be, indeed as the members of any human language and social group habitually assume it to be.

Since Whorf was concerned with linguistic and/or conceptual patterns that people almost always follow in everyday life, he has often been read as a determinist. But as John Lucy pointed out (1992a), Whorf’s critiques clearly bore on habitual thinking, what it is easy to think; his ethical goal was to force us, through learning about other languages, other ways of foregrounding and linking aspects of experience, to think in ways that are not so easy, to follow paths that are not so familiar. Whorf’s argument is not fundamentally about constraint, but about the seductive force of habit, of what is “easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs” (“Model,” 1956: 55) and so easy to think. It is not about the limits of a given language or the limits of thought, since Whorf presumes, Boasian that he is, that any language can convey any referential content.

Whorf’s favorite analogy for the relation of language to thought is the same as Sapir’s: that of tracks, paths, roads, ruts, or grooves. Even Whorf’s most determinist-sounding passages, which are also the ones most cited, sound very different if we take the implications of this analogy seriously: “Thinking … follows a network of tracks laid down in the given language, an organization which may concentrate systematically upon certain phases of reality … and may systematically discard others featured by other languages. The individual is utterly unaware of this organization and is constrained completely within its unbreakable bonds” (1956: 256); “we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages” (p. 213). But this is from the same essay in which Whorf asserted the universality of “ways of linking experiences … basically alike for all persons”; and this completely constrained individual is evidently the unreflective (utterly unaware) Mr. Everyman (Schultz 1990), and the very choice of the analogy of traced lines or tracks, assuming that they are not railway tracks – that they are not is suggested by all the other road and path metaphors – leaves open the possibility of getting off the path, if only we had the imagination and the gumption to do it. We can cut cross-country. In the study of an exotic language, he wrote, “we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our ruts. Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own” (1956: 138). How can Whorf be a determinist, how can he see us as forever trapped in these ruts, if the study of another language is sufficient to push us, kicking and screaming perhaps, out of them?

The total picture, then, is not one of constraint or determinism. It is, on the other hand, a model of powerful seduction: the seduction of what is familiar and easy to think, of what is intellectually restful, of what makes common sense.7 The seduction of the habitual pathway, based largely on laziness and fear of the unknown, can, with work, be resisted and broken. Somewhere in the back of Whorf’s mind may have been the allegory of the broad, fair road to Hell and the narrow, difficult path to Heaven beloved of his Puritan forebears. It makes us think of another New England Protestant: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, / I took the one less travelled by, / and that has made all the difference.”

The recognition of the seduction of the familiar implies a real ethical program:

It is the “plainest” English which contains the greatest number of unconscious assumptions about nature … Western culture has made, through language, a provisional analysis of reality and, without correctives, holds resolutely to that analysis as final. The only correctives lie in all those other tongues which by aeons of independent evolution have arrived at different, but equally logical, provisional analyses. (1956: 244)

Learning non-Western languages offers a lesson in humility and awe in an enormous multilingual world:

We shall no longer be able to see a few recent dialects of the Indo-European family, and the rationalizing techniques elaborated from their patterns, as the apex of the evolution of the human mind, nor their present wide spread as due to any survival from fitness or to anything but a few events of history – events that could be called fortunate only from the parochial point of view of the favored parties. They, and our own thought processes with them, can no longer be envisioned as spanning the gamut of reason and knowledge but only as one constellation in a galactic expanse. (p. 218)

The breathtaking sense of sudden vaster possibility, of the sky opening up to reveal a bigger sky beyond, may be what provokes such strong reactions to Whorf. For some, he is simply enraging or ridiculous. For others, reading Whorf is a transformative experience, and there are many stories of students coming to anthropology or linguistics largely because of their reading of Whorf (personal communications; Alford 2002).

p. 167-168

[T]he rise of cognitive science was accompanied by a restating of what came to be called the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” in the most extreme terms. Three arguments came to the fore repeatedly:

Determinism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis says that the language you speak, and nothing else, determines how you think and perceive. We have already seen how false a characterization this is: the model the Boasians were working from was only deterministic in cases of no effort, of habitual thought or speaking. With enough effort, it is always possible to change your accent or your ideas.

Hermeticism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis maintains that each language is a sealed universe, expressing things that are inexpressible in another language. In such a view, translation would be impossible and Whorf’s attempt to render Hopi concepts in English an absurdity. In fact, the Boasians presumed, rather, that languages were not sealed worlds, but that they were to some degree comparable to worlds, and that passing between them required effort and alertness.

Both of these characterizations are used to set up a now classic article on linguistic relativity by the psychologist Eleanor Rosch (1974):

Are we “trapped” by our language into holding a particular “world view”? Can we never really understand or communicate with speakers of a language quite different from our own because each language has molded the thought of its people into mutually incomprehensible world views? Can we never get “beyond” language to experience the world “directly”? Such issues develop from an extreme form of a position sometimes known as “the Whorfian hypothesis” … and called, more generally, generally, the hypothesis of “linguistic relativity.” (Rosch 1974: 95)

Rosch begins the article noting how intuitively right the importance of language differences first seemed to her, then spends much of the rest of it attacking this initial intuition.

Infinite variability. A third common characterization is that Boasian linguistics holds that, in Martin Joos’s words, “languages can differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways” (Joos 1966: 96). This would mean that the identification of any language universal would disprove the approach. In fact, the Boasians worked with the universals that were available to them – these were mainly derived from psychology – but opposed what they saw as the unfounded imposition of false universals that in fact reflected only modern Western prejudices. Joos’s hostile formulation has been cited repeatedly as if it were official Boasian doctrine (see Hymes and Fought 1981: 57).

For over fifty years, these three assertions have largely defined the received understanding of linguistic relativity. Anyone who has participated in discussions and/or arguments about the “Whorfian hypothesis” has heard them over and over again.

p. 169-173

In the 1950s, anthropologists and psychologists were interested in experimentation and the testing of hypotheses on what was taken to be the model of the natural sciences. At a conference on language in culture, Harry Hoijer (1954) first named a Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language influences thought.

To call something a hypothesis is to propose to test it, presumably using experimental methods. This task was taken on primarily by psychologists. A number of attempts were made to prove or disprove experimentally that language influences thought (see Lucy 1992a: 127–78; P. Brown 2006). Both “language” and “thought” were narrowed down to make them more amenable to experiment: the aspect of language chosen was usually the lexicon, presumably the easiest aspect to control in an experimental setting; thought was interpreted to mean perceptual discrimination and cognitive processing, aspects of thinking that psychologists were comfortable testing for. Eric Lenneberg defined the problem posed by the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” as that of “the relationship that a particular language may have to its speakers’ cognitive processes … Does the structure of a given language affect the thoughts (or thought potential), the memory, the perception, the learning ability of those who speak that language?” (1953: 463). Need I recall that Boas, Sapir, and Whorf went out of their way to deny that different languages were likely to be correlated with strengths and weaknesses in cognitive processes, i.e., in what someone is capable of thinking, as opposed to the contents of habitual cognition? […]

Berlin and Kay started by rephrasing Sapir and Whorf as saying that the search for semantic universals was “fruitless in principle” because “each language is semantically arbitrary relative to every other language” (1969: 2; cf. Lucy 1992a: 177–81). If this is what we are calling linguistic relativity, then if any domain of experience, such as color, is identified in recognizably the same way in different languages, linguistic relativity must be wrong. As we have seen, this fits the arguments of Weisgerber and Bloomfield, but not of Sapir or Whorf. […]

A characteristic study was reported recently in my own university’s in-house newspaper under the title “Language and Perception Are Not Connected” (Baril 2004). The article starts by saying that according to the “Whorf–Sapir hypothesis … language determines perception,” and therefore that “we should not be able to distinguish differences among similar tastes if we do not possess words for expressing their nuances, since it is language that constructs the mode of thought and its concepts … According to this hypothesis, every language projects onto its speakers a system of categories through which they see and interpret the world.” The hypothesis, we are told, has been “disconfirmed since the 1970s” by research on color. The article reports on the research of Dominic Charbonneau, a graduate student in psychology. Intrigued by recent French tests in which professional sommeliers, with their elaborate vocabulary, did no better than regular ignoramuses in distinguishing among wines, Charbonneau carried out his own experiment on coffee – this is, after all, a French-speaking university, and we take coffee seriously. Francophone students were asked to distinguish among different coffees; like most of us, they had a minimal vocabulary for distinguishing them (words like “strong,” “smooth,” “dishwater”). The participants made quite fine distinctions among the eighteen coffees served, well above the possible results of chance, showing that taste discrimination does not depend on vocabulary. Conclusion: “Concepts must be independent of language, which once again disconfirms the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis” (my italics). And this of course would be true if there were such a hypothesis, if it was primarily about vocabulary, and if it said that vocabulary determines perception.

We have seen that Bloomfield and his successors in linguistics maintained the unlimited arbitrariness of color classifications, and so could have served as easy straw men for the cognitivist return to universals. But what did Boas, Sapir, Whorf, or Lee actually have to say about color? Did they in fact claim that color perception or recognition or memory was determined by vocabulary? Sapir and Lee are easy: as far as I have been able to ascertain, neither one of them talked about color at all. Steven Pinker attributes a relativist and determinist view of color classifications to Whorf:

Among Whorf’s “kaleidoscopic flux of impressions,” color is surely the most eye-catching. He noted that we see objects in different hues, depending on the wavelengths of the light they reflect, but that the wavelength is a continuous dimension with nothing delineating red, yellow, green, blue, and so on. Languages differ in their inventory of color words … You can fill in the rest of the argument. It is language that puts the frets in the spectrum. (Pinker 1994: 61–2)

No he didn’t. Whorf never noted anything like this in any of his published work, and Pinker gives no indication of having gone through Whorf’s unpublished papers. As far as I can ascertain, Whorf talks about color in two places; in both he is saying the opposite of what Pinker says he is saying.

pp. 187-188

The 1950s through the 1980s saw the progressive triumph of universalist cognitive science. From the 1980s, one saw the concomitant rise of relativistic postmodernism. By the end of the 1980s there had been a massive return to the old split between universalizing natural sciences and their ancillary social sciences on the one hand, particularizing humanities and their ancillary cultural studies on the other. Some things, in the prevailing view, were universal, others so particular as to call for treatment as fiction or anecdote. Nothing in between was of very much interest, and North American anthropology, the discipline that had been founded upon and achieved a sort of identity in crossing the natural-science/humanities divide, faced an identity crisis. Symptomatically, one noticed many scholarly bookstores disappearing their linguistics sections into “cognitive science,” their anthropology sections into “cultural studies.”

In this climate, linguistic relativity was heresy, Whorf, in particular, a kind of incompetent Antichrist. The “Whorfian hypothesis” of linguistic relativism or determinism became a topos of any anthropology textbook, almost inevitably to be shown to be silly. Otherwise serious linguists and psychologists (e.g., Pinker 1994: 59–64) continued to dismiss the idea of linguistic relativity with an alacrity suggesting alarm and felt free to heap posthumous personal vilification on Whorf, the favorite target, for his lack of official credentials, in some really surprising displays of academic snobbery. Geoffrey Pullum, to take only one example, calls him a “Connecticut fire prevention inspector and weekend language-fancier” and “our man from the Hartford Fire Insurance Company” (Pullum 1989 [1991]: 163). This comes from a book with the subtitle Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. But how irreverent is it to make fun of somebody almost everybody has been attacking for thirty years?

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
pp. 195-198

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Whorf?

Psychologist Daniel Casasanto has noted, in an article whose title gives this section its heading, that some researchers find Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity to be threatening. 6 But why is Whorf such a bogeyman for some? And what makes his notion of linguistic relativity such a dangerous idea?

The rationalists fear linguistic relativity – the very idea of it – and they hate it, with a passion: it directly contradicts everything they stand for – if relativism is anywhere near right, then the rationalist house burns down, or collapses, like a tower of cards without a foundation. And this fear and loathing in parts of the Academy can often, paradoxically, be highly irrational indeed. Relativity is often criticised without argumentative support, or ridiculed, just for the audacity of existing as an intellectual idea to begin with. Jerry Fodor, more candid than most about his irrational fear, just hates it. He says: “The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats.” 7 Fodor continues, illustrating further his irrational contempt: “surely, surely, no one but a relativist would drive a fiberglass powerboat”. 8

Fodor’s objection is that relativism overlooks what he deems to be “the fixed structure of human nature”. 9 Mentalese provides the fixed structure – as we saw in the previous chapter. If language could interfere with this innate set of concepts, then the fixed structure would no longer be fixed – anathema to a rationalist.

Others are more coy, but no less damning. Pinker’s strategy is to set up straw men, which he then eloquently – but mercilessly – ridicules. 10 But don’t be fooled, there is no serious argument presented – not on this occasion. Pinker takes an untenable and extreme version of what he claims Whorf said, and then pokes fun at it – a common modus operandi employed by those who are afraid. Pinker argues that Whorf was wrong because he equated language with thought: that Whorf assumes that language causes or determines thought in the first place. This is the “conventional absurdity” that Pinker refers to in the first of his quotations above. For Pinker, Whorf was either romantically naïve about the effects of language, or, worse, like the poorly read and ill-educated, credulous.

But this argument is a classic straw man: it is set up to fail, being made of straw. Whorf never claimed that language determined thought. As we shall see, the thesis of linguistic determinism, which nobody believes, and which Whorf explicitly rejected, was attributed to him long after his death. But Pinker has bought into the very myths peddled by the rationalist tradition for which he is cheerleader-in-chief, and which lives in fear of linguistic relativity. In the final analysis, the language-as-instinct crowd should be afraid, very afraid: linguistic relativity, once and for all, explodes the myth of the language-as-instinct thesis.

The rise of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis

Benjamin Lee Whorf became interested in linguistics in 1924, and studied it, as a hobby, alongside his full-time job as an engineer. In 1931, Whorf began to attend university classes on a part-time basis, studying with one of the leading linguists of the time, Edward Sapir. 11 Amongst other things covered in his teaching, Sapir touched on what he referred to as “relativity of concepts … [and] the relativity of the form of thought which results from linguistic study”. 12 The notion of the relativistic effect of different languages on thought captured Whorf’s imagination; and so he became captivated by the idea that he was to develop and become famous for. Because Whorf’s claims have often been disputed and misrepresented since his death, let’s see exactly what his formulation of his principle of linguistic relativity was:

Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. 13

Indeed, as pointed out by the Whorf scholar, Penny Lee, post-war research rarely ever took Whorf’s principle, or his statements, as their starting point. 14 Rather, his writings were, on the contrary, ignored, and his ideas largely distorted. 15

For one thing, the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was not due to either Sapir or Whorf. Sapir – whose research was not primarily concerned with relativity – and Whorf were lumped together: the term ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was coined in the 1950s, over ten years after both men had been dead – Sapir died in 1939, and Whorf in 1941.16 Moreover, Whorf’s principle emanated from an anthropological research tradition; it was not, strictly speaking, a hypothesis. But, in the 1950s, psychologists Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown sought to test empirically the notion of linguistic relativity. And to do so, they reformulated it in such a way that it could be tested, producing two testable formulations. 17 One, the so-called ‘strong version’ of relativity, holds that language causes a cognitive restructuring: language causes or determines thought. This is otherwise known as linguistic determinism, Pinker’s “conventional absurdity”. The second hypothesis, which came to be known as the ‘weak version’, claims instead that language influences a cognitive restructuring, rather than causing it. But neither formulation of the so-called ‘Sapir − Whorf hypothesis’ was due to Whorf, or Sapir. Indeed, on the issue of linguistic determinism, Whorf was explicit in arguing against it, saying the following:

The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur. 18

This demonstrates that, in point of fact, Whorf actually believed in something like the ‘fixed structure’ that Fodor claims is lacking in relativity. The delicious irony arising from it all is that Pinker derides Whorf on the basis of the ‘strong version’ of the Sapir − Whorf hypothesis: linguistic determinism – language causes thought. But this strong version was a hypothesis not created by Whorf, but imagined by rationalist psychologists who were dead set against Whorf and linguistic relativity anyway. Moreover, Whorf explicitly disagreed with the thesis that was posthumously attributed to him. The issue of linguistic determinism became, incorrectly and disingenuously, associated with Whorf, growing in the rationalist sub-conscious like a cancer – Whorf was clearly wrong, they reasoned.

In more general terms, defenders of the language-as-instinct thesis have taken a leaf out of the casebook of Noam Chomsky. If you thought that academics play nicely, and fight fair, think again. Successful ideas are the currency, and they guarantee tenure, promotion, influence and fame; and they allow the successful academic to attract Ph.D. students who go out and evangelise, and so help to build intellectual empires. The best defence against ideas that threaten is ridicule. And, since the 1950s, until the intervention of John Lucy in the 1990s – whom I discuss below – relativity was largely dismissed; the study of linguistic relativity was, in effect, off-limits to several generations of researchers.

The Bilingual Mind, And What it Tells Us about Language and Thought
by Aneta Pavlenko
PP. 27-32

1.1.2.4 The real authors of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the invisibility of scientific revolutions

The invisibility of bilingualism in the United States also accounts for the disappearance of multilingual awareness from discussions of Sapir’s and Whorf’s work, which occurred when the two scholars passed away – both at a relatively young age – and their ideas landed in the hands of others. The posthumous collections brought Sapir’s ( 1949 ) and Whorf’s ( 1956 ) insights to the attention of the wider public (including, inter alia , young Thomas Kuhn ) and inspired the emergence of the field of psycholinguistics. But the newly minted psycholinguists faced a major problem: it had never occurred to Sapir and Whorf to put forth testable hypotheses. Whorf showed how linguistic patterns could be systematically investigated through the use of overt categories marked systematically (e.g., number in English or gender in Russian) and covert categories marked only in certain contexts (e.g., gender in English), yet neither he nor Sapir ever elaborated the meaning of ‘different observations’ or ‘psychological correlates’.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, scholarly debates at conferences, summer seminars and in academic journals attempted to correct this ‘oversight’ and to ‘systematize’ their ideas (Black, 1959 ; Brown & Lenneberg , 1954 ; Fishman , 1960 ; Hoijer, 1954a; Lenneberg, 1953 ; Osgood & Sebeok , 1954 ; Trager , 1959 ). The term ‘the Sapir -Whorf hypothesis’ was first used by linguistic anthropologist Harry Hoijer ( 1954b ) to refer to the idea “that language functions, not simply as a device for reporting experience, but also, and more significantly, as a way of defining experience for its speakers” (p. 93). The study of SWH, in Hoijer’s view, was supposed to focus on structural and semantic patterns active in a given language. This version, probably closest to Whorf’s own interest in linguistic classification, was soon replaced by an alternative, developed by psychologists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg, who translated Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into two ‘testable’ hypotheses (Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg, 1953 ). The definitive form of the dichotomy was articulated in Brown’s ( 1958 ) book Words and Things:

linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)

In what follows, I will draw on Kuhn’s ([1962] 2012 ) insights to discuss four aspects of this radical transformation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s ideas into the SWH: (a) it was a major change of paradigm , that is, of shared assumptions, research foci, and methods, (b) it erased multilingual awareness , (c) it created a false dichotomy, and (d) it proceeded unacknowledged.

The change of paradigm was necessitated by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines: Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ) compares a dialog between scientific communities to intercultural communication, which requires skillful translation if it is to avoid communication breakdowns. Brown and Lenneberg ’s translation was not skillful and while their ideas moved the study of language and cognition forward, they departed from the original arguments in several ways (for discussion, see also Levinson , 2012 ; Lucy , 1992a ; Lee , 1996 ).

First, they shifted the focus of the inquiry from the effects of obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Secondly, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips, that hardly reflect habitual thought. Third, they privileged the idea of thought potential (and, by implication, what can be said) over Sapir’s and Whorf’s concerns with obligatory categories and habitual thought (and, by definition, with what is said). Fourth, they missed the insights about the illusory objectivity of one’s own language and replaced the interest in linguistic thought with independent ‘language’ and ‘cognition’. Last, they substituted Humboldt ’s, Sapir ’s and Whorf ’s interest in multilingual awareness with a hypothesis articulated in monolingual terms.

A closer look at Brown’s ( 1958 ) book shows that he was fully aware of the existence of bilingualism and of the claims made by bilingual speakers of Native American languages that “thinking is different in the Indian language” (p. 232). His recommendation in this case was to distrust those who have the “unusual” characteristic of being bilingual:

There are few bilinguals, after all, and the testimony of those few cannot be uncritically accepted. There is a familiar inclination on the part of those who possess unusual and arduously obtained experience to exaggerate its remoteness from anything the rest of us know. This must be taken into account when evaluating the impressions of students of Indian languages. In fact, it might be best to translate freely with the Indian languages, assimilating their minds to our own. (Brown, 1958 : 233)

The testimony of German–English bilinguals – akin to his own collaborator Eric Heinz Lenneberg – was apparently another matter: the existence of “numerous bilingual persons and countless translated documents” was, for Brown ( 1958 : 232), compelling evidence that the German mind is “very like our own”. Alas, Brown ’s ( 1958 ) contradictory treatment of bilingualism and the monolingual arrogance of the recommendations ‘to translate freely’ and ‘to assimilate Indian minds to our own’ went unnoticed by his colleagues. The result was the transformation of a fluid and dynamic account of language into a rigid, static false dichotomy.

When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilinguals interested in language evolution and the evolution of the human mind makes little sense. Yet the replacement of the open-ended questions about implications of linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. And it was welcomed by scholars who, like Kay and Kempton ( 1984 ), applauded the translation of Sapir’s and Whorf’s convoluted passages into direct prose and felt that Brown and Lenneberg “really said all that was necessary” (p. 66) and that the question of what Sapir and Whorf actually thought was interesting but “after all less important than the issue of what is the case” (p. 77). In fact, by the 1980s, Kay and Kempton were among the few who could still trace the transformation to the two psychologists. Their colleagues were largely unaware of it because Brown and Lenneberg concealed the radical nature of their reformulation by giving Sapir and Whorf ‘credit’ for what should have been the Brown-Lenneberg hypothesis.

We might never know what prompted this unusual scholarly modesty – a sincere belief that they were simply ‘improving’ Sapir and Whorf or the desire to distance themselves from the hypothesis articulated only to be ‘disproved’. For Kuhn ([1962] 2012 ), this is science as usual: “it is just this sort of change in the formulation of questions and answers that accounts, far more than novel empirical discoveries, for the transition from Aristotelian to Galilean and from Galilean to Newtonian dynamics” (p. 139). He also points to the hidden nature of many scientific revolutions concealed by textbooks that provide the substitute for what they had eliminated and make scientific development look linear, truncating the scientists’ knowledge of the history of their discipline. This is precisely what happened with the SWH: the newly minted hypothesis took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in myriads of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media, and moving the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.

The transformation was facilitated by four common academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. The very frequency of this reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’, accepted as a valid substitution for the original ideas. The new terms of engagement became part of habitual thought in the Ivory Tower and to this day are considered obligatory by many academics who begin their disquisitions on linguistic relativity with a nod towards the sound-bite version of the ‘strong’ determinism and ‘weak’ relativity. In Kuhn ’s ([1962] 2012 ) view, this perpetuation of a new set of shared assumptions is a key marker of a successful paradigm change: “When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced” (p. 20).

Yet the false dichotomy reified in the SWH – and the affective framing of one hypothesis as strong and the other as weak – moved the goalposts and reset the target and the standards needed to achieve it, giving scholars a clear indication of which hypothesis they should address. This preference, too, was perpetuated by countless researchers who, like Langacker ( 1976 : 308), dismissed the ‘weak’ version as obviously true but uninteresting and extolled ‘the strongest’ as “the most interesting version of the LRH” but also as “obviously false”. And indeed, the research conducted on Brown’s and Lenneberg’s terms failed to ‘prove’ linguistic determinism and instead revealed ‘minor’ language effects on cognition (e.g., Brown & Lenneberg, 1954 ; Lenneberg , 1953 ) or no effects at all (Heider , 1972 ). The studies by Gipper ( 1976 ) 4 and Malotki ( 1983 ) showed that even Whorf ’s core claims, about the concept of time in Hopi, may have been misguided. 5 This ‘failure’ too became part of the SWH lore, with textbooks firmly stating that “a strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis cannot be true” (Foss & Hakes , 1978 : 393).

By the 1980s, there emerged an implicit consensus in US academia that Whorfianism was “a bête noire, identified with scholarly irresponsibility, fuzzy thinking, lack of rigor, and even immorality” (Lakoff, 1987 : 304). This consensus was shaped by the political climate supportive of the notion of ‘free thought’ yet hostile to linguistic diversity, by educational policies that reinforced monolingualism, and by the rise of cognitive science and meaning-free linguistics that replaced the study of meaning with the focus on structures and universals. Yet the implications of Sapir ’s and Whorf’s ideas continued to be debated (e.g., Fishman , 1980 , 1982 ; Kay & Kempton , 1984 ; Lakoff, 1987 ; Lucy & Shweder , 1979 ; McCormack & Wurm , 1977 ; Pinxten , 1976 ) and in the early 1990s the inimitable Pinker decided to put the specter of the SWH to bed once and for all. Performing a feat reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty, Pinker ( 1994 ) made the SWH ‘mean’ what he wanted it to mean, namely “the idea that thought is the same thing as language” (p. 57). Leaving behind Brown ’s ( 1958 ) articulation with its modest co-variation, he replaced it in the minds of countless undergraduates with

the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism , stating that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity , stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers. (Pinker, 1994 : 57)

And lest they still thought that there is something to it, Pinker ( 1994 ) told them that it is “an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity” (p. 57) and “it is wrong, all wrong” (p. 57). Ironically, this ‘obituary’ for the SWH coincided with the neo-Whorfian revival, through the efforts of several linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists – most notably Gumperz and Levinson ( 1996 ), Lakoff ( 1987 ), Lee ( 1996 ), Lucy ( 1992a , b ), and Slobin ( 1991 , 1996a ) – who were willing to buck the tide, to engage with the original texts, and to devise new methods of inquiry. This work will form the core of the chapters to come but for now I want to emphasize that the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg and their attribution to Sapir and Whorf is still pervasive in many academic circles and evident in the numerous books and articles that regurgitate the SWH as the strong/weak dichotomy. The vulgarization of Whorf ’s views bemoaned by Fishman ( 1982 ) also continues in popular accounts, and I fully agree with Pullum ( 1991 ) who, in his own critique of Whorf, noted:

Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality. (p. 159)

Popularizers of academic work continue to stigmatize Whorf through comments such as “anyone can estimate the time of day, even the Hopi Indians; these people were once attributed with a lack of any conception of time by a book-bound scholar, who had never met them” (Richards , 1998 : 44). Even respectable linguists perpetuate the strawman version of “extreme relativism – the idea that there are no facts common to all cultures and languages” (Everett, 2012 : 201) or make cheap shots at “the most notorious of the con men, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who seduced a whole generation into believing, without a shred of evidence, that American Indian languages lead their speakers to an entirely different conception of reality from ours” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21). This assertion is then followed by a statement that while the link between language, culture, and cognition “seems perfectly kosher in theory, in practice the mere whiff of the subject today makes most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists recoil” because the topic “carries with it a baggage of intellectual history which is so disgraceful that the mere suspicion of association with it can immediately brand anyone a fraud” (Deutscher, 2010 : 21).

Such comments are not just an innocent rhetorical strategy aimed at selling more copies: the uses of hyperbole (most linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists ; mere suspicion of association), affect (disgraceful , fraud , recoil , embarrassment), misrepresentation (disgraceful baggage of intellectual history), strawman’s arguments and reduction ad absurdum as a means of persuasion have played a major role in manufacturing the false consent in the history of ideas that Deutscher (2010) finds so ‘disgraceful’ (readers interested in the dirty tricks used by scholars should read the expert description by Pinker , 2007 : 89–90). What is particularly interesting is that both Deutscher (2010) and Everett (2012) actually martial evidence in support of Whorf’s original arguments. Their attempt to do so while distancing themselves from Whorf would have fascinated Whorf, for it reveals two patterns of habitual thought common in English-language academia: the uncritical adoption of the received version of the SWH and the reliance on the metaphor of ‘argument as war’ (Tannen , 1998), i.e., an assumption that each argument has ‘two sides’ (not one or three), that these sides should be polarized in either/or terms, and that in order to present oneself as a ‘reasonable’ author, one should exaggerate the alternatives and then occupy the ‘rational’ position in between. Add to this the reductionism common for trade books and the knowledge that criticism sells better than praise, and you get Whorf as a ‘con man’.

Dark Matter of the Mind
by Daniel L. Everett
Kindle Locations 352-373

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures” (cf. Ehrlich 2001). Crucial to the perspective here is the concept-apperception continuum. Concepts can always be made explicit; apperceptions less so. The latter result from a culturally guided experiential memory (whether conscious or unconscious or bodily). Such memories can be not only difficult to talk about but often ineffable (see Majid and Levinson 2011; Levinson and Majid 2014). Yet both apperception and conceptual knowledge are uniquely determined by culture, personal history, and physiology, contributing vitally to the formation of the individual psyche and body.

Dark matter emerges from individuals living in cultures and thereby underscores the flexibility of the human brain. Instincts are incompatible with flexibility. Thus special care must be given to evaluating arguments in support of them (see Blumberg 2006 for cogent criticisms of many purported examples of instincts, as well as the abuse of the term in the literature). If we have an instinct to do something one way, this would impede learning to do it another way. For this reason it would surprise me if creatures higher on the mental and cerebral evolutionary scale— you and I, for example— did not have fewer rather than more instincts. Humans, unlike cockroaches and rats— two other highly successful members of the animal kingdom— adapt holistically to the world in which they live, in the sense that they can learn to solve problems across environmental niches, then teach their solutions and reflect on these solutions. Cultures turn out to be vital to this human adaptational flexibility— so much so that the most important cognitive question becomes not “What is in the brain?” but “What is the brain in?” (That is, in what individual, residing in what culture does this particular brain reside?)

The brain, by this view, was designed to be as close to a blank slate as was possible for survival. In other words, the views of Aristotle, Sapir, Locke, Hume, and others better fit what we know about the nature of the brain and human evolution than the views of Plato, Bastian, Freud, Chomsky, Tooby, Pinker, and others. Aristotle’s tabula rasa seems closer to being right than is currently fashionable to suppose, especially when we answer the pointed question, what is left in the mind/ brain when culture is removed?

Most of the lessons of this book derive from the idea that our brains (including our emotions) and our cultures are related symbiotically through the individual, and that neither supervenes on the other. In this framework, nativist ideas often are superfluous.

Kindle Locations 3117-3212

Science, we might say, ought to be exempt from dark matter. Yet that is much harder to claim than to demonstrate. […] To take a concrete example of a science, we focus on linguistics, because this discipline straddles the borders between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The basic idea to be explored is this: because counterexamples and exceptions are culturally determined in linguistics, as in all sciences, scientific progress is the output of cultural values. These values differ even within the same discipline (e.g., linguistics), however, and can lead to different notions of progress in science. To mitigate this problem, therefore, to return to linguistics research as our primary example, our inquiry should be informed by multiple theories, with a focus on languageS rather than Language. To generalize, this would mean a focus on the particular rather than the general in many cases. Such a focus (in spite of the contrast between this and many scientists’ view that generalizations are the goal of science) develops a robust empirical basis while helping to distinguish local theoretical culture from broader, transculturally agreed-upon desiderata of science— an issue that theories of language, in a way arguably more extreme than in other disciplines, struggle to tease apart.

The reason that a discussion of science and dark matter is important here is to probe the significance and meaning of dark matter, culture, and psychology in the more comfortable, familiar territory of the reader, to understand that what we are contemplating here is not limited to cultures unlike our own, but affects every person, every endeavor of Homo sapiens, even the hallowed enterprise of science. This is not to say that science is merely a cultural illusion. This chapter has nothing to do with postmodernist epistemological relativity. But it does aim to show that science is not “pure rationality,” autonomous from its cultural matrix. […]

Whether we classify an anomaly as counterexample or exception depends on our dark matter— our personal history plus cultural values, roles, and knowledge structures. And the consequences of our classification are also determined by culture and dark matter. Thus, by social consensus, exceptions fall outside the scope of the statements of a theory or are explicitly acknowledged by the theory to be “problems” or “mysteries.” They are not immediate problems for the theory. Counterexamples, on the other hand, by social consensus render a statement false. They are immediately acknowledged as (at least potential) problems for any theory. Once again, counterexamples and exceptions are the same etically, though they are nearly polar opposites emically. Each is defined relative to a specific theoretical tradition, a specific set of values, knowledge structures, and roles— that is, a particular culture.

One bias that operates in theories, the confirmation bias, is the cultural value that a theory is true and therefore that experiments are going to strengthen it, confirm it, but not falsify it. Anomalies appearing in experiments conducted by adherents of a particular theory are much more likely to be interpreted as exceptions that might require some adjustments of the instruments, but nothing serious in terms of the foundational assumptions of the theory. On the other hand, when anomalies turn up in experiments by opponents of a theory, there will be a natural bias to interpret these as counterexamples that should lead to the abandonment of the theory. Other values that can come into play for the cultural/ theoretical classification of an anomaly as a counterexample or an exception include “tolerance for cognitive dissonance,” a value of the theory that says “maintain that the theory is right and, at least temporarily, set aside problematic facts,” assuming that they will find a solution after the passage of a bit of time. Some theoreticians call this tolerance “Galilean science”— the willingness to set aside all problematic data because a theory seems right. Fair enough. But when, why, and for how long a theory seems right in the face of counterexamples is a cultural decision, not one that is based on facts alone. We have seen that the facts of a counterexample and an exception can be exactly the same. Part of the issue of course is that data, like their interpretations, are subject to emicization. We decide to see data with a meaning, ignoring the particular variations that some other theory might seize on as crucial. In linguistics, for example, if a theory (e.g., Chomskyan theory) says that all relevant grammatical facts stop at the boundary of the sentence, then related facts at the level of paragraphs, stories, and so on, are overlooked.

The cultural and dark matter forces determining the interpretation of anomalies in the data that lead one to abandon a theory and another to maintain it themselves create new social situations that confound the intellect and the sense of morality that often is associated with the practice of a particular theory. William James (1907, 198) summed up some of the reactions to his own work, as evidence of these reactions to the larger field of intellectual endeavors: “I fully expect to see the pragmatist view of truth run through the classic stages of a theory’s career. First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.”

In recent years, due to my research and claims regarding the grammar of the Amazonian Pirahã— that this language lacks recursion— I have been called a charlatan and a dull wit who has misunderstood. It has been (somewhat inconsistently) further claimed that my results are predicted (Chomsky 2010, 2014); it has been claimed that an alternative notion of recursion, Merge, was what the authors had in mind is saying that recursion is the foundation of human languages; and so on. And my results have been claimed to be irrelevant.

* * *

Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful
Essentialism On the Decline
Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?
Blue on Blue
The Chomsky Problem
Dark Matter of the Mind
What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?
Cultural Body-Mind
How Universal Is The Mind?
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
On Truth and Bullshit

Blue on Blue

“Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.”
~ Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

“This blue was the principle that transcended principles. This was the taste, the wish, the Binah that understands, the dainty fingers of personality and the swirling fingerprint lines of individuality, this sigh that returns like a forgotten and indescribable scent that never dies but only you ever knew, this tingle between familiar and strange, this you that never there was word for, this identifiable but untransmittable sensation, this atmosphere without reason, this illicit fairy kiss for which you are more fool than sinner, this only thing that God and Satan mistakenly left you for your own and which both (and everyone else besides) insist to you is worthless— this, your only and invisible, your peculiar— this secret blue.”
~ Quentin S. Crisp, Blue on Blue

Perception is as much cognition as sensation. Colors don’t exist in the world. It is our brain’s way of processing light waves detected by the eyes. Someone unable to see from birth will never be able to see normal colors, even if they gain sight as an adult. The brain has to learn how to see the world and that is a process that primarily happens in infancy and childhood.

Radical questions follow from this insight. Do we experience blue, forgiveness, individuality, etc before our culture has the language for it? And, conversely, does the language we use and how we use it indicate our actual experience? Or does it filter and shape it? Did the ancients lack not only perceived blueness but also individuated/interiorized consciousness and artistic perspective because they had no way of communicating and expressing it? If they possessed such things as their human birthright, why did they not communicate them in their texts and show them in their art?

The most ancient people would refer to the sky as black. Some isolated people in more recent times have also been observed offering this same description. This apparently isn’t a strange exception. Guy Deutscher mentions that, in an informal color experiment, his young daughter once pointed to the “pitch-black sky late at night” and declared it blue—that was at the age of four, long after having learned the color names for blue and black. She had the language to make the distinction and yet she made a similar ‘mistake’ as some isolated island people. How could that be? Aren’t ‘black’ and ‘blue’ obviously different?

The ancients described physical appearances in some ways that seem bizarre to the modern sensibility. Homer says the sea appears something like wine and so do sheep. Or else the sea is violet, just as are oxen and iron. Even more strangely, green is the color of honey and the color human faces turn under emotional distress. Yet no where in the ancient world is anything blue for no word for it existed. Things that seem blue to us are either green, black or simply dark in ancient texts.

It has been argued that Homer’s language such as the word for ‘bronze’ might not have referred to color at all. But that just adds to the strangeness. We not only can’t determine what colors he might have been referring to or even if he was describing colors at all. There weren’t abstractly generalized color terms that were exclusively dedicated to colors, instead also describing other physical features, psychological experiences, and symbolic values. This might imply that synesthesia once was a more common experience, related to the greater capacity preliterate individuals had for memorizing vast amounts of information (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly).

The paucity and confusion of ancient color language indicates color wasn’t perceived as all that significant, to the degree it was consciously perceived at all, at least not in the way we moderns think about it. Color hue might have not seemed all that relevant in the ancient world that was mostly lacking artificially colored objects and entirely lacking in bright garden flowers. Besides the ancient Egyptians, no one in the earliest civilizations had developed blue pigment and hence a word to describe it. Blue is a rare color in nature. Even water and sky is rarely a bright clear blue, when blue at all.

This isn’t just about color. There is something extremely bizarre going on, according to what we moderns assume to the case about the human mind and perception.

Consider the case of the Piraha, as studied by Daniel L. Everett (a man who personally understands the power of their cultural worldview). The Piraha have no color terms, not as single words, although they are able to describe colors using multiple words and concrete comparisons—such as red described as being like blood or green as like not yet ripe. Of course, they’ve been in contact with non-Piraha for a while now and so no one knows how they would’ve talked about colors before interaction with outsiders.

From a Western perspective, there are many other odd things about the Piraha. Their language does not fit the expectations of what many have thought as universal to all human language. They have no terms for numbers and counting, as well as no “quantifiers like all, each, every, and so on” (Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 119). Originally, they had no pronouns and the pronouns they borrowed from other languages are used limitedly. They refer to ‘say’ in place of ‘think’, which makes one wonder what this indicates about their experience—is their thought an act of speaking?

Along with lacking ancestor worship, there aren’t even words to refer to family one never personally knew. Also, there are no creation stories or myths or fiction or any apparent notion of the world having been created or another supernatural world existing. They don’t think in those terms nor, one might presume, perceive reality in those terms. They are epistemological agnostics about anything they haven’t personally experienced or someone they personally know hasn’t personally experienced, and their language is extremely precise in knowledge claims, making early Western philosophers seem simpleminded in comparison. Everett was put in the unfortunate position of having tried to convert them to Christianity, but instead they converted him to atheism. Yet the Piraha live in a world they perceive as filled with spirits. These aren’t otherworldly spirits. They are very much in this world and when a Piraha speaks as a spirit they are that spirit. To put it another way, the world is full of diverse and shifting selves.

Color terms refer to abstract unchanging categories, the very thing that seems least relevant to the Piraha. They favor a subjective mentality, but that doesn’t mean they possess a subjective self similar to Western culture. Like many hunter-gatherers, they have a fluid sense of identity that changes along with their names, their former self treated as no longer existing whatsoever, just gone. There is no evidence of belief in a constant self that would survive death, as there is no belief in gods nor a heaven and hell. Instead of being obsessed with what is beyond, they are endlessly fascinated by what is at the edge of experience, what appears and disappears. In Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha, Everett explains this:

“After discussions and checking of many examples of this, it became clearer that the Piraha are talking about liminality—situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. This concept is found throughout Piraha˜ culture.
Piraha˜’s excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as traveling into another dimension. It is interesting, in light of the postulated cultural constraint on grammar, that there is an important Piraha˜ term and cultural value for crossing the border between experience and nonexperience.”

To speak of colors is to speak of particular kinds of perceptions and experiences. The Piraha culture is practically incomprehensible to us, as the Piraha represent an alien view of the world. Everett, in making a conclusion, writes that,

“Piraha thus provides striking evidence for the influence of culture on major grammatical structures, contradicting Newmeyer’s (2002:361) assertion (citing “virtually all linguists today”), that “there is no hope of correlating a language’s gross grammatical properties with sociocultural facts about its speakers.” If I am correct, Piraha shows that gross grammatical properties are not only correlated with sociocultural facts but may be determined by them.”

Even so, Everett is not arguing for a strong Whorfian positon of linguistic determinism. Then again, Vyvyan Evans states that not even Benjamin Lee Whorf made this argument. In Language, Thought and Reality, Whorf wrote (as quoted by Evans in The Language Myth):

“The tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called ‘mind’. My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signalling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur.”

Anyway, Everett observed that the Piraha demonstrated a pattern to how they linguistically treated certain hues of color. It’s just that they had much diversity and complexity in how they described colors, a dark brown object being described differently than a dark-skinned person, and no consistency across all the Piraha members in which phrases they’d use to describe which colors. Still, like any other humans, they had the capacity for color perception, whether or not their color cognition matches that of other cultures.

To emphasize the point, the following is a similar example, as presented by Vyvyan Evans from The Language Myth (p. 207-8):

“The colour system in Yélî Dnye has been studied extensively by linguistic anthropologist Stephen Levinson. 38 Levinson argues that the lesson from Rossel Island is that each of the following claims made by Berlin and Kay is demonstrably false:

  • Claim 1: All languages have basic colour terms
  • Claim 2: The colour spectrum is so salient a perceptual field that all cultures must systematically and exhaustively name the colour space
  • Claim 3: For those basic colour terms that exist in any given language, there are corresponding focal colours – there is an ideal hue that is the prototypical shade for a given basic colour term
  • Claim 4: The emergence of colour terms follows a universal evolutionary pattern

“A noteworthy feature of Rossel Island culture is this: there is little interest in colour. For instance, there is no native artwork or handiwork in colour. The exception to this is hand-woven patterned baskets, which are usually uncoloured, or, if coloured, are black or blue. Moreover, the Rossel language doesn’t have a word that corresponds to the English word colour: the domain of colour appears not to be a salient conceptual category independent of objects. For instance, in Yélî, it is not normally possible to ask what colour something is, as one can in English. Levinson reports that the equivalent question would be: U pââ ló nté? This translates as “Its body, what is it like?” Furthermore, colours are not usually associated with objects as a whole, but rather with surfaces.”

Evans goes into greater detail. Suffice it to say, she makes a compelling argument that this example contradicts and falsifies the main claims of conventional theory, specifically that of Berlin and Kay. This culture defies expectations. It’s one of the many exceptions that appears to disprove the hypothetical rule.

Part of the challenge is we can’t study other cultures as neutral observers. Researchers end up influencing those cultures they study or else simply projecting their own cultural biases onto them and so interpreting the results accordingly. Even the tests used to analyze color perceptions across cultures are themselves culturally biased. They don’t just measure how people divide up hues. In the process of being tested, the design of the test is teaching the subjects a particular way of thinking about color perception. The test can’t tell us how people think about colors prior to the test itself. And obviously, even if the test could accomplish this impossible feat, we have no way of time traveling back in order to apply the test to ancient people.

We are left with a mystery and no easy way to explore it.

* * *

Here are a few related posts of mine. And below that are other sources of info, including a video at the very bottom.

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative

Self, Other, & World

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
by Guy Deutscher

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about. […]

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?
by Tim Howard, Radiolab

Is the Sky Blue?
by Lisa Wade, PhD, Sociological Images

Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction. There are other examples of this phenomenon. What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany. Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.

Could our ancestors see blue?
by Ellie Zolfagharifard, Daily Mail

But it’s not just about lighting conditions or optical illusions – evidence is mounting that until we have a way to describe something, we may not see its there.

Fathoming the wine-dark sea
by Christopher Howse, The Spectator

It wasn’t just the ‘wine-dark sea’. That epithet oinops, ‘wine-looking’ (the version ‘wine-dark’ came from Andrew Lang’s later translation) was applied both to the sea and to oxen, and it was accompanied by other colours just as nonsensical. ‘Violet’, ioeis, (from the flower) was used by Homer of the sea too, but also of wool and iron. Chloros, ‘green’, was used of honey, faces and wood. By far the most common colour words in his reticent vocabulary were black (170 times) and white (100), followed distantly by red (13).

What could account for this alien colour-sense? It wasn’t that Homer (if Homer existed) was blind, for there are parallel usages in other Greek authors.

A Winelike Sea
by Caroline Alexander, Lapham’s Quarterly

The image Homer hoped to conjure with his winelike sea greatly depended upon what wine meant to his audience. While the Greeks likely knew of white wine, most ancient wine was red, and in the Homeric epics, red wine is the only wine specifically described. Drunk at feasts, poured onto the earth in sacred rituals, or onto the ashes around funeral pyres, Homeric wine is often mélas, “dark,” or even “black,” a term with broad application, used of a brooding spirit, anger, death, ships, blood, night, and the sea. It is also eruthrós, meaning “red” or the tawny-red hue of bronze; and aíthops, “bright,” “gleaming,” a term also used of bronze and of smoke in firelight. While these terms notably have more to do with light, and the play of light, than with color proper, Homeric wine was clearly dark and red and would have appeared especially so when seen in the terracotta containers in which it was transported. “Winelike sea” cannot mean clear seawater, nor the white splash of sea foam, nor the pale color of a clear sea lapping the shallows of a sandy shore. […]

Homer’s sea, whether háls, thálassa, or póntos, is described as misty, darkly troubled, black-dark, and grayish, as well as bright, deep, clashing, tumultuous, murmuring, and tempestuous—but it is never blue. The Greek word for blue, kuáneos, was not used of the sea until the late sixth or early fifth century BC, in a poem by the lyric poet Simonides—and even here, it is unclear if “blue” is strictly meant, and not, again, “dark”:

the fish straight up from the
dark/blue water leapt
at the beautiful song

After Simonides, the blueness of kuáneos was increasingly asserted, and by the first century, Pliny the Elder was using the Latin form of the word, cyaneus, to describe the cornflower, whose modern scientific name, Centaurea cyanus, still preserves this lineage. But for Homer kuáneos is “dark,” possibly “glossy-dark” with hints of blue, and is used of Hector’s lustrous hair, Zeus’ eyebrows, and the night.

Ancient Greek words for color in general are notoriously baffling: In The Iliad, “chlorós fear” grips the armies at the sound of Zeus’ thunder. The word, according to R. J. Cunliffe’s Homeric lexicon, is “an adjective of color of somewhat indeterminate sense” that is “applied to what we call green”—which is not the same as saying it means “green.” It is also applied “to what we call yellow,” such as honey or sand. The pale green, perhaps, of vulnerable shoots struggling out of soil, the sickly green of men gripped with fear? […]

Rather than being ignorant of color, it seems that the Greeks were less interested in and attentive to hue, or tint, than they were to light. As late as the fourth century BC, Plato named the four primary colors as white, black, red, and bright, and in those cases where a Greek writer lists colors “in order,” they are arranged not by the Newtonian colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—but from lightest to darkest. And The Iliad contains a broad, specialized vocabulary for describing the movement of light: argós meaning “flashing” or “glancing white”; aiólos, “glancing, gleaming, flashing,” or, according to Cunliffe’s Lexicon, “the notion of glancing light passing into that of rapid movement,” and the root of Hector’s most defining epithet, koruthaíolos—great Hector “of the shimmering helm.” Thus, for Homer, the sky is “brazen,” evoking the glare of the Aegean sun and more ambiguously “iron,” perhaps meaning “burnished,” but possibly our sense of a “leaden” sky. Significantly, two of the few unambiguous color terms in The Iliad, and which evoke the sky in accordance with modern sensibilities, are phenomena of light: “Dawn robed in saffron” and dawn shining forth in “rosy fingers of light.”

So too, on close inspection, Homeric terms that appear to describe the color of the sea, have more to do with light. The sea is often glaukós or mélas. In Homer, glaukós (whence glaucoma) is color neutral, meaning “shining” or “gleaming,” although in later Greek it comes to mean “gray.” Mélas (whence melancholy) is “dark in hue, dark,” sometimes, perhaps crudely, translated as “black.” It is used of a range of things associated with water—ships, the sea, the rippled surface of the sea, “the dark hue of water as seen by transmitted light with little or no reflection from the surface.” It is also, as we have seen, commonly used of wine.

So what color is the sea? Silver-pewter at dawn; gray, gray-blue, green-blue, or blue depending on the particular day; yellow or red at sunset; silver-black at dusk; black at night. In other words, no color at all, but rather a phenomenon of reflected light. The phrase “winelike,” then, had little to do with color but must have evoked some attribute of dark wine that would resonate with an audience familiar with the sea—with the póntos, the high sea, that perilous path to distant shores—such as the glint of surface light on impenetrable darkness, like wine in a terracotta vessel. Thus, when Achilles, “weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat/on the shore of the gray salt sea,” stretches forth his hands toward the oínopa pónton, he looks not on the enigmatic “wine-dark sea,” but, more explicitly, and possibly with more weight of melancholy, on a “sea as dark as wine.”

Ancient Greek Color Vision
by Ananda Triulzi

In his writings Homer surprises us by his use of color. His color descriptive palate was limited to metallic colors, black, white, yellowish green and purplish red, and those colors he often used oddly, leaving us with some questions as to his actual ability to see colors properly (1). He calls the sky “bronze” and the sea and sheep as the color of wine, he applies the adjective chloros (meaning green with our understanding) to honey, and a nightingale (2). Chloros is not the only color that Homer uses in this unusual way. He also uses kyanos oddly, “Hector was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him” (3). Here it would seem, to our understanding, that Hector’s hair was blue as we associate the term kyanos with the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, in our thinking kyanos means cyan (4). But we cannot assume that Hector’s hair was blue, rather, in light of the way that Homer consistently uses color adjectives, we must think about his meaning, did he indeed see honey as green, did he not see the ocean as blue, how does his perception of color reflect on himself, his people, and his world.

Homer’s odd color description usage was a cultural phenomenon and not simply color blindness on his part, Pindar describes the dew as chloros, in Euripides chloros describes blood and tears (5). Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red (6). These colors are fairly consistent with the four colors used by Homer in his color description, this leads us to the conclusion that all Ancient Greeks saw color only in the premise of Empedocles’ colors, in some way they lacked the ability to perceive the whole color spectrum. […]

This inability to perceive something because of linguistic restriction is called linguistic relativity (7). Because the Ancient Greeks were not really conscious of seeing, and did not have the words to describe what they unconsciously saw, they simply did not see the full spectrum of color, they were limited by linguistic relativity.

The color spectrum aside, it remains to explain the loose and unconventional application of Homer and other’s limited color descriptions, for an answer we look to the work of Eleanor Irwin. In her work, Irwin suggests that besides perceiving less chromatic distinction, the Ancient Greeks perceived less division between color, texture, and shadow, chroma may have been difficult for them to isolate (8). For the Ancient Greeks, the term chloros has been suggested to mean moistness, fluidity, freshness and living (9). It also seems likely that Ancient Greek perception of color was influenced by the qualities that they associated with colors, for instance the different temperaments being associated with colors probably affected the way they applied color descriptions to things. They didn’t simply see color as a surface, they saw it as a spirited thing and the word to describe it was often fittingly applied as an adjective meaning something related to the color itself but different from the simplicity of a refined color.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World
by Erin Hoffman

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze. […]

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky). Ancient Japanese used the same word for blue and green (青 Ao), and even modern Japanese describes, for instance, thriving trees as being “very blue,” retaining this artifact (青々とした: meaning “lush” or “abundant”). […]

Blue certainly existed in the world, even if it was rare, and the Greeks must have stumbled across it occasionally even if they didn’t name it. But the thing is, if we don’t have a word for something, it turns out that to our perception—which becomes our construction of the universe—it might as well not exist. Specifically, neuroscience suggests that it might not just be “good or bad” for which “thinking makes it so,” but quite a lot of what we perceive.

The malleability of our color perception can be demonstrated with a simple diagram, shown here as figure six, “Afterimages”. The more our photoreceptors are exposed to the same color, the more fatigued they become, eventually giving out entirely and creating a reversed “afterimage” (yellow becomes blue, red becomes green). This is really just a parlor trick of sorts, and more purely physical, but it shows how easily shifted our vision is; other famous demonstrations like this selective attention test (its name gives away the trick) emphasize the power our cognitive functions have to suppress what we see. Our brains are pattern-recognizing engines, built around identifying things that are useful to us and discarding the rest of what we perceive as meaningless noise. (And a good thing that they do; deficiencies in this filtering, called sensory gating, are some of what cause neurological dysfunctions such as schizophrenia and autism.)

This suggests the possibility that not only did Homer lack a word for what we know as “blue”—he might never have perceived the color itself. To him, the sky really was bronze, and the sea really was the same color as wine. And because he lacked the concept “blue”—therefore its perception—to him it was invisible, nonexistent. This notion of concepts and language limiting cognitive perception is called linguistic relativism, and is typically used to describe the ways in which various cultures can have difficulty recalling or retaining information about objects or concepts for which they lack identifying language. Very simply: if we don’t have a word for it, we tend to forget it, or sometimes not perceive it at all. […]

So, if we’re all synesthetes, and our minds are extraordinarily plastic, capable of reorienting our entire perception around the addition of a single new concept (“there is a color between green and violet,” “schizophrenia is much more common than previously believed”), the implications of Homer’s wine-dark sea are rich indeed.

We are all creatures of our own time, our realities framed not by the limits of our knowledge but by what we choose to perceive. Do we yet perceive all the colors there are? What concepts are hidden from us by the convention of our language? When a noblewoman of Syracuse looked out across the Mare Siculum, did she see waves of Bacchanalian indigo beneath a sunset of hammered bronze? If a seagull flew east toward Thapsus, did she think of Venus and the fall of Troy?

The myriad details that define our everyday existence may define also the boundaries of our imagination, and with it our dreams, our ethics. We are lenses moving through time, beings of color and shadow.

Evolution of the Color Blue
by Dov Michaeli MD, PhD, The Doctor Weighs In

Why were black, white, and red the first colors to be perceived by our forefathers? The evolutionary explanation is quite straightforward: ancient humans had to distinguish between night and day. And red is important for recognizing blood and danger. Even today, in us moderns, the color red causes an increase in skin galvanic response, a sign of tension and alarm. Green and yellow entered the vocabulary as the need to distinguish ripe fruit from unripe, grasses that are green from grasses that are wilting, etc. But what is the need for naming the color blue? Blue fruits are not very common, and the color of the sky is not really vital for survival.

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)
by Aatish Bhatia, Empirical Zeal

Some languages have just three basic colors, others have 4, 5, 6, and so on. There’s even a debate as to whether the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon have any specialized color words at all! (If you ask a Pirahã tribe member to label something red, they’ll say that it’s blood-like).

But there’s still a pattern hidden in this diversity. […] You start with a black-and-white world of darks and lights. There are warm colors, and cool colors, but no finer categories. Next, the reds and yellows separate away from white. You can now have a color for fire, or the fiery color of the sunset. There are tribes that have stopped here. Further down, blues and greens break away from black. Forests, skies, and oceans now come of their own in your visual vocabulary. Eventually, these colors separate further. First, red splits from yellow. And finally, blue from green.

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II)
by Aatish Bhatia, Empirical Zeal

The researchers found that there is a real, measurable difference in how we perform on these two tasks. In general, it takes less time to identify that odd blue square compared to the odd green one. This makes sense to anyone who’s ever tried looking for a tennis ball in the grass. It’s not that hard, but I’d rather the ball be blue. In once case you are jumping categories (blue versus green), and in the other, staying with a category (green versus green).

However, and this is where things start to get a bit strange, this result only holds if the differently colored square was in the right half of the circle. If it was in the left half (as in the example images above), then there’s no difference in reaction times – it takes just as long to spot the odd blue as the odd green. It seems that color categories only matter in the right half of your visual field! […]

The crucial point is that everything that we see in the right half of our vision is processed in the left hemisphere of our brain, and everything we see in the left half is processed by the right hemisphere. And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. So perhaps the language savvy half of our brain is helping us out. […]

But how do we know that language is the key here? Back to the previous study. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment, but this time threw in a verbal distraction. The subjects were asked to memorize a word before each color test. The idea was to keep their language circuits distracted. And at the same time, other subjects were shown an image to memorize, not a word. In this case, it’s a visual distraction, and the language part of the brain needn’t be disturbed.

They found that when you’re verbally distracted, it suddenly becomes harder to separate blue from green (you’re slower at straddling color categories). In fact the results showed that people found this more difficult then separating two shades of green. However, if the distraction is visual, not verbal, things are different. It becomes easy to spot the blue among green, so you’re faster at straddling categories.

All of this is only true for your left brain. Meanwhile, your right brain is rather oblivious to these categories (until, of course, the left brain bothers to inform it). The conclusion is that language is somehow enhancing your left brain’s ability to discern different colors with different names. Cultural forces alter our perception in ever so subtle a way, by gently tugging our visual leanings in different directions.

Color categories: Confirmation of the relativity hypothesis.
by Debi Roberson, Jules Davidoff, Ian R. L. Davies, & Laura R. Shapiro

In a category-learning paradigm, there was no evidence that Himba participants perceived the blue – green region of color space in a categorical manner. Like Berinmo speakers, they did not find this division easier to learn than an arbitrary one in the center of the green category. There was also a significant advantage for learning the dumbu-burou division, over the yellow-green division. It thus appears that CP for color category boundaries is tightly linked to the linguistic categories of the participant.

Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba
by Julie Goldstein, Jules B. Davidoff, & Debi Roberson, JECP

Two experiments attempted to reconcile discrepant recent findings relating to children’s color naming and categorization. In a replication of Franklin and colleagues ( Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 90 (2005) 114–141), Experiment 1 tested English toddlers’ naming and memory for blue–green and blue–purple colors. It also found advantages for between-category presentations that could be interpreted as support for universal color categories. However, a different definition of knowing color terms led to quite different conclusions in line with the Whorfian view of Roberson and colleagues (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133 (2004) 554–571). Categorical perception in recognition memory was now found only for children with a fuller understanding of the relevant terms. It was concluded that color naming can both under estimate and overestimate toddlers’ knowledge of color terms. Experiment 2 replicated the between-category recognition superiority found in Himba children by Franklin and colleagues for the blue–purple range. But Himba children, whose language does not have separate terms for green and blue, did not show across-category advantage for that set; rather, they behaved like English children who did not know their color terms.

The Effects of Color Names on Color Concepts, or Like Lazarus Raised from the Tomb
by Chris, ScienceBlogs

It’s interesting that the Berinmo and Himba tribes have the same number of color terms, as well, because that rules out one possible alternative explanation of their data. It could be that as languages develop, they develop a more sophisticated color vocabulary, which eventually approximates the color categories that are actually innately present in our visual systems. We would expect, then, that two languages that are at similar levels of development (in other words, they both have the same number of color categories) would exhibit similar effects, but the speakers’ of the two languages remembered and perceived the colors differently. Thus it appears that languages do not develop towards any single set of universal color categories. In fact, Roberson et al. (2004) reported a longitudinal study that implies that exactly the opposite may be the case4. They found that children in the Himba tribe, and English-speaking children in the U.S., initially categorized color chips in a similar way, but as they grew older and more familiar with the color terms of their languages, their categorizations diverged, and became more consistent with their color names. This is particularly strong evidence that color names affect color concepts.

Forget the dress; what color did early Israelites see when they looked up to the sky?
by David Streever, Episcopal Cafe

The children of the Himba were able to differentiate between many more shades of green than their English counterparts, but did not recognize the color blue as being distinct from green. The research found that the 11 basic English colors have no basis in the visual system, lending further credence to the linguistic theories of Deutscher, Geiger, Gladstone, and other academics.

Colour Categories as Cultural Constructs
by Jules Davidoff, Artbrain

This is a group of people in Namibia who were asked to do some color matching and similarity judgments for us. It’s a remote part of the world, but not quite so remote that somebody hasn’t got the t-shirt, but it’s pretty remote. That’s the sort of environment they live in, and these are the youngsters that I’m going to show you some particular data on. They are completely monolingual in their own language, which has a tremendous richness in certain types of terms, in cattle terms (I can’t talk about that now), but has a dramatic lack in color terms. They’ve only got five color terms. So all of the particular colors of the world, and this is an illustration which can go from white to black at the top, red to yellow, green, blue, purple, back to red again, if this was shown in terms of the whole colors of the spectrum, but they only have five terms. So they see the world as, perhaps differently than us, perhaps slightly plainer. So we looked at these young children, and we showed them a navy blue color at the top and we asked them to point to the same color again from another group of colors. And those colors included the correct color, but of course sometimes the children made mistakes. What I want to show was that the English children and the Himba children, these people are the Himba of Northwest Namibia, start out from the same place, they have this undefined color space in which, at the beginning of the testing, T1, they make errors in choosing the navy blue, sometimes they’ll choose the blue, sometimes they’ll choose the black, sometimes they’ll choose the purple. Now the purple one, actually if you did a spectral analysis, the blue and the purple, the one on the right, are the closest. And as you can see, as the children got older, the most common error, both for English children and the Himba children, is the increase (that’s going up on the graph) of the purple mistakes. But, their language, the Himba language, has the same word for blue as for black. We, of course, have the same word for the navy blue as the blue on the left, only as the children get older, three or four, the English children only ever confuse the navy blue to the blue on the left, whereas the Himba children confuse the navy blue with the black. So, what’s happening? Someone asked yesterday whether the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis had any currency. Well, if it has a little bit of currency, it has it certainly here, in that what is happening, because the names of colors mean different things in the different cultures, because blue and black are the same in the Himba language, the actual similarity does seem to have been altered in the pictorial register. So, the blues that we call blue, and the claim is that there is no natural category called blue, they were just sensations we want to group together, those natural categories don’t exist. But because we have constructed these categories, blues look more similar to us in the pictorial register, whereas to these people in Northwest Namibia, the blues and the blacks look more similar. So, in brief, I’d like to further add more evidence or more claim that we are constructing the world of colors and in some way at least our memory structures do alter, to a modest extent at least, what we’re seeing.

Hues and views
A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception.
by Rachel Adelson, APA

Not only has no evidence emerged to link the 11 basic English colors to the visual system, but the English-Himba data support the theory that color terms are learned relative to language and culture.

First, for children who didn’t know color terms at the start of the study, the pattern of memory errors in both languages was very similar. Crucially, their mistakes were based on perceptual distances between colors rather than a given set of predetermined categories, arguing against an innate origin for the 11 basic color terms of English. The authors write that an 11-color organization may have become common because it efficiently serves cultures with a greater need to communicate more precisely. Still, they write, “even if [it] were found to be optimal and eventually adopted by all cultures, it need not be innate.”

Second, the children in both cultures didn’t acquire color terms in any particular, predictable order–such as the universalist idea that the primary colors of red, blue, green and yellow are learned first.

Third, the authors say that as both Himba and English children started learning their cultures’ color terms, the link between color memory and color language increased. Their rapid perceptual divergence once they acquired color terms strongly suggests that cognitive color categories are learned rather than innate, according to the authors.

The study also spotlights the power of psychological research conducted outside the lab, notes Barbara Malt, PhD, a cognitive psychologist who studies language and thought and also chairs the psychology department at Lehigh University.

“To do this kind of cross-cultural work at all requires a rather heroic effort, [which] psychologists have traditionally left to linguists and anthropologists,” says Malt. “I hope that [this study] will inspire more cognitive and developmental psychologists to go into the field and pursue these kinds of comparisons, which are the only way to really find out which aspects of perception and cognition are universal and which are culture or language specific.”

Humans didn’t even see the colour blue until modern times, research suggests
by Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert

Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers.

This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t see blue at all. Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it.

Blue was the Last Color Perceived by Humans
by Nancy Loyan Schuemann, Mysterious Universe

MRI experiments confirm that people who process color through their verbal left brains, where the names of colors are accessed, recognize them more quickly. Language molds us into the image of the culture in which we are born.

Categorical perception of color is lateralized to the right hemisphere in infants, but to the left hemisphere in adults
by A. Franklin, G. V. Drivonikou, L. Bevis, I. R. L. Davies, P. Kay, & T. Regier, PNAS

Both adults and infants are faster at discriminating between two colors from different categories than two colors from the same category, even when between- and within-category chromatic separation sizes are equated. For adults, this categorical perception (CP) is lateralized; the category effect is stronger for the right visual field (RVF)–left hemisphere (LH) than the left visual field (LVF)–right hemisphere (RH). Converging evidence suggests that the LH bias in color CP in adults is caused by the influence of lexical color codes in the LH. The current study investigates whether prelinguistic color CP is also lateralized to the LH by testing 4- to 6-month-old infants. A colored target was shown on a differently colored background, and time to initiate an eye movement to the target was measured. Target background pairs were either from the same or different categories, but with equal target-background chromatic separations. Infants were faster at initiating an eye movement to targets on different-category than same-category backgrounds, but only for targets in the LVF–RH. In contrast, adults showed a greater category effect when targets were presented to the RVF–LH. These results suggest that whereas color CP is stronger in the LH than RH in adults, prelinguistic CP in infants is lateralized to the RH. The findings suggest that language-driven CP in adults may not build on prelinguistic CP, but that language instead imposes its categories on a LH that is not categorically prepartitioned.

Categorical perception of colour in the left and right visual field is verbally mediated: Evidence from Korean
by Debi Roberson, Hyensou Pak, & J. Richard Hanley

In this study we demonstrate that Korean (but not English) speakers show Categorical perception (CP) on a visual search task for a boundary between two Korean colour categories that is not marked in English. These effects were observed regardless of whether target items were presented to the left or right visual field. Because this boundary is unique to Korean, these results are not consistent with a suggestion made by Drivonikou [Drivonikou, G. V., Kay, P., Regier, T., Ivry, R. B., Gilbert, A. L., Franklin, A. et al. (2007) Further evidence that Whorfian effects are stronger in the right visual field than in the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 1097–1102] that CP effects in the left visual field provide evidence for the existence of a set of universal colour categories. Dividing Korean participants into fast and slow responders demonstrated that fast responders show CP only in the right visual field while slow responders show CP in both visual fields. We argue that this finding is consistent with the view that CP in both visual fields is verbally mediated by the left hemisphere language system.

Linguistic Fossils of the Mind’s Eye
by Keith, UMMAGUMMA blog

The other, The Unfolding of Language (2005), deals with the actual evolution of language. […]

Yet, while erosion occurs there is also a creative force in the human development of language. That creativity is revealed in our unique capacity for metaphor. “…metaphor is the indispensible element in the thought-process of every one of us.” (page 117) “It transpired that metaphor is an essential tool of thought, an indispensible conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract concepts in terms of simpler concrete things. It is, in fact, the only way we have of dealing with abstraction.” (page 142) […]

The use of what can be called ‘nouns’ and not just ‘things’ is a fairly recent occurrence in language, reflecting a shift in human experience. This is a ‘fossil’ of linguistics. “The flow from concrete to abstract has created many words for concepts that are no longer physical objects, but nonetheless behave like thing-words in the sentence. The resulting abstract concepts are no longer thing-words, but they inherit their distribution from the thing-words that gave rise to them. A new category of words has thus emerged…which we can now call ‘noun’.” (page 246)

The way language is used, its accepted uses by people through understood rules of grammar, is the residue of collective human experience. “The grammar of a language thus comes to code most compactly and efficiently those constructions that are used most frequently…grammar codes best what it does most often.” (page 261) This is centrally why I hold the grammar of language to be almost a sacred portal into human experience.

In the 2010 work, Deutscher’s emphasis shifts to why different languages reveal that humans actually experience life differently. We do not all feel and act the same way about the things of life. My opinion is that it is a mistake to believe “humanity” thinks, feels and experiences to a high degree of similarity. The fact is language shows that, as it diversified across the earth, humanity has a multitude of diverse ways of experiencing.

First of all, “…a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and perceive the world.” (page 7) […]

The author does not go as far as me, nor is he as blunt; I am interjecting much of my personal beliefs in here. Still, “…fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today….what we find ‘natural’ depends largely on the conventions we have been brought up on.” (page 233) There are clear echoes of Nietzsche in here.

The conclusion is that “habits of speech can create habits of mind.” So, language affects culture fundamentally. But, this is a reciprocal arrangement. Language changes due to cultural experience yet cultural experience is affected by language.

Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass
Stuart Hindmarsh, Philosophical Overview

In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher addresses the question as to whether the natural language we speak will have an influence on our thought and our perception. He focuses on perceptions, and specifically the perceptions of colours and perceptions of spatial relations. He is very dismissive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and varieties of linguistic relativity which would say that if the natural language we speak is of a certain sort then we cannot have certain types of concepts or experiences. For example, a proponent of this type of linguistic relativity might say that if your language does not have a word for the colour blue then you cannot perceive something as blue. Nonetheless, Deutscher argues that the natural language we speak will have some influence on how we think and see the world, giving several examples, many of which are fascinating. However, I believe that several of his arguments that dismiss views like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are based on serious misunderstandings.

The view that language is the medium in which conceptual thought takes place has a long history in philosophy, and this is the tradition out of which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed. […]

It is important to note that in this tradition the relation between language and conceptual thought is not seen as one in which the ability to speak a language is one capacity and the ability to think conceptually a completely separate faculty, and in which the first merely has a causal influence on the other. It is rather the view that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to think conceptually and that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to have perceptions of certain kinds, such as those in which what is perceived is subsumed under a concept. For example, it might be said that without language it is possible to see a rabbit but not possible to see it as a rabbit (as opposed to a cat, a dog, a squirrel, or any other type of thing). Thus conceptual thinking and perceptions of these types are seen not as separate from language and incidentally influenced by it but dependent on language and taking their general form from language. This does not mean that speech or writing must be taking place every time a person thinks in concepts or has these types of perception, though. To think that it must is a misunderstanding essentially the same as a common misinterpretation of Kant, which I will discuss in more detail in a later post.

While I take this to be the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Deutscher evidently interprets that hypothesis as a very different kind of view. According to this view, the ability to speak a language is separate from the ability to think conceptually and from the ability to have the kinds of perceptions described above and it merely influences such thought and perception from without. Furthermore, it is not a relation in which language makes these types of thought and perception possible but one in which thought and perception are actually constrained by language. This interpretation runs through all of Deutscher’s criticisms of linguistic relativity. […]

Certainly many questionable assertions have been made based on the premise that language conditions the way that we think. Whorf apparently made spurious claims about Hopi conceptions of time. Today a great deal of dubious material is being written about the supposed influence of the internet and hypertext media on the way that we think. This is mainly inspired by Marshall McLuhan but generally lacking his originality and creativity. Nevertheless, there have been complex and sophisticated versions of the idea that the natural language that we speak conditions our thought and our perceptions, and these deserve serious attention. There are certainly more complex and sophisticated versions of these ideas than the crude caricature that Deutscher sets up and knocks down. Consequently, I don’t believe that he has given convincing reasons for seeing the relations between language and thought as limited to the types of relations in the examples he gives, interesting though they may be. For instance, he notes that the aboriginal tribes in question would have to always keep in mind where the cardinal directions were and consequently in this sense the language would require them to think a certain way.

The History and Science Behind the Color Blue
by staff, Dunn-Edwards Paints

If you think about it, there is not a lot of blue in nature. Most people do not have blue eyes, blue flowers do not occur naturally without human intervention, and blue animals are rare — bluebirds and bluejays only live in isolated areas. The sky is blue — or is it? One theory suggests that before humans had words for the color blue, they actually saw the sky as another color. This theory is supported by the fact that if you never describe the color of the sky to a child, and then ask them what color it is, they often struggle to describe its color. Some describe it as colorless or white. It seems that only after being told that the sky is blue, and after seeing other blue objects over a period of time, does one start seeing the sky as blue. […]

Scientists generally agree that humans began to see blue as a color when they started making blue pigments. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago lack any blue color, since as previously mentioned, blue is rarely present in nature. About 6,000 years ago, humans began to develop blue colorants. Lapis, a semiprecious stone mined in Afghanistan, became highly prized among the Egyptians. They adored the bright blue color of this mineral. They used chemistry to combine the rare lapis with other ingredients, such as calcium and limestone, and generate other saturated blue pigments. It was at this time that an Egyptian word for “blue” emerged.

Slowly, the Egyptians spread their blue dyes throughout the word, passing them on to the Persians, Mesoamericans and Romans. The dyes were expensive — only royalty could afford them. Thus, blue remained rare for many centuries, though it slowly became popular enough to earn its own name in various languages.

Cognitive Variations:
Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind
by Geoffrey Lloyd
Kindle Locations 178-208

Standard colour charts and Munsell chips were, of course, used in the research to order to ensure comparability and to discount local differences in :he colours encountered in the natural environment. But their use carried major risks, chiefly that of circularity. The protocols of the enquiry presupposed the differences that were supposed to be under investigation and to that extent and in that regard the investigators just got out what they had put in. That is to say, the researchers presented their interviewees with materials that already incorporated the differentiations the researchers themselves were interested in. Asked to identify, name, or group different items, the respondents’ replies were inevitably matched against those differentiations. Of course the terms in which the replies were made-in the natural languages the respondents used-must have borne some relation to the differences perceived, otherwise they would not have been used in replying to the questions (assuming, as we surely may, that the questions were taken seriously and that the respondents were doing their honest best). But it was assumed that what the respondents were using in their replies were essentially colour terminologies, distinguishing hues, and that assumption was unfounded in general, and in certain cases can be shown to be incorrect.

It was unfounded in general because there are plenty of natural languages in which the basic discrimination relates not to hues, but to luminosities. Ancient Greek is one possible example. Greek colour classifications are rich and varied and were, as we shall see, a matter of dispute among the Greeks themselves. They were certainly capable of drawing distinctions between hues. I have already given one example. When Aristotle analyses the rainbow, where it is clearly hue that separates one end of the spectrum from the other, he identifies three colours using terms that correspond, roughly, to ‘red’ ‘green’, and ‘blue’, with a fourth, corresponding to ‘yellow’, which he treats (as noted) as a mere ‘appearance’ between ‘red’ and ‘green’. But the primary contrariety that figures in ancient Greek (including in Aristotle) is between Ieukon and melan, which usually relate not to hues, so much as to luminosity. Leukos, for instance, is used of the sun and of water, where it is clearly not the case that they share, or were thought to share, the same hue. So the more correct translation of that pair is often ‘bright’ or ‘light’ and ‘dark’, rather than ‘white’ and ‘black’.’ ^ Berlin and Kay (1969: 70) recognized the range of application of Ieukon, yet still glossed the term as ‘white’. Even more strangely they interpreted glaukon as ‘black’. That term is particularly context-dependent, but when Aristotle (On the Generation of Animals 779″z6, b34 ff.) tells us that the eyes of babies are glaukon, that corresponds to ‘blue’ where melon, the usual term for ‘black’ or rather ‘dark’, is represented as its antonym, rather than its synonym, as Berlin and Kay would need it to be.

So one possible source of error in the Berlin and Kay methodology was the privileging of hue over luminosity. But that still does not get to the bottom of the problem, which is that in certain cases the respondents were answering in terms whose primary connotations were not colours at all. The Hanunoo had been studied before Berlin and Kay in a pioneering article by Conklin (1955), and Lyons (1995; 1999) has recently reopened the discussion of this material.? First Conklin observed that the Hanunoo have no word for colour as such. But (as noted) that does not mean, of course, that they are incapable of discriminating between different hues or luminosities. To do so they use four terms, mabiru, malagti, rtarara, and malatuy, which may be thought to correspond, roughly, to ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’, and ‘green’. Hanunoo way then classified as a s:age 3 language, in Berlin and Kay’s taxonomy, one that discriminates between four basic colour terms, indeed those very four. 7 Cf. also Lucy 1992: ch. 5, who similarly criticizes taking purportedly colour terms out of context.

Yet, according to Conklin, chromatic variation was not the primary basis for differentiation of those four terms at all. Rather the two principal dimensions of variation are (T) lightness versus darkness, and (2) wetness versus dryness, or freshness (succulence) versus desiccation. siccation. A third differentiating factor is indelibility versus fadedness, referring to permanence or impermanence, rather than to hue as such.

Berlin and Kay only got to their cross-cultural universals by ignoring ing (they may even sometimes have been unaware of) the primary connotations of the vocabulary in which the respondents expressed their answers to the questions put to them. That is not to say, of course, that the members of the societies concerned are incapable of distinguishing colours whether as hues or as luminosities. That would be to make the mistake that my first philosophical observation was designed to forestall. You do not need colour terms to register colour differences. Indeed Berlin and Kay never encountered-certainly they never reported-a society where tie respondents simply had nothing to say when questioned about how their terms related to what they saw on the Munsell chips. But the methodology was flawed in so far as it was assumed that the replies given always gave access to a classification of colour, when sometimes colours were not the primary connotations of the vocabulary used at all.’

The Language Myth:
Why Language Is Not an Instinct
by Vyvyan Evans
pp. 204-206

The neo-Whorfians have made four main criticisms of this research tradition as it relates to linguistic relativity. 33 First off, the theoretical construct of the ‘basic colour term’ is based on English. It is then assumed that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to an innate biological specification. But the assumption that basic colour terms – based on English – correspond to universal semantic constraints, due to our common biology, biases the findings in advance. The ‘finding’ that other languages also have basic colour terms is a consequence of a self-fufilling prophecy: as English has been ‘found’ to exhibit basic colour terms, all other languages will too. But this is no way to investigate putative cross-linguistic universals; it assumes, much like Chomsky did, that colour in all of the world’s languages will be, underlyingly, English-like. And as we shall see, other languages often do things in startlingly different ways.

Second, the linguistic analysis Berlin and Kay conducted was not very rigorous – to say the least. For most of the languages they ‘examined’, Berlin and Kay relied on second-hand sources, as they had no first-hand knowledge of the languages they were hoping to find basic colour terms in. To give you a sense of the problem, it is not even clear whether many of the putative basic colour terms Berlin and Kay ‘uncovered’, were from the same lexical class; for instance, in English, the basic colour terms – white, black, red and so on – are all adjectives. Yet, for many of the world’s languages, colour expressions often come from different lexical classes. As we shall see shortly, one language, Yélî Dnye, draws its colour terms from several lexical classes, none of which is adjectives. And the Yélî language is far from exceptional in this regard. The difficulty here is that, without a more detailed linguistic analysis, there is relatively little basis for the assumption that what is being compared involves comparable words. And, that being the case, can we still claim that we are dealing with basic colour terms?

Third, many other languages do not conceptualise colour as an abstract domain independent of the objects that colour happens to be a property of. For instance, some languages do not even have a word corresponding to the English word colour – as we shall see later. This shows that colour is often not conceptualised as a stand-alone property in the way that it is in English. In many languages, colour is treated in combination with other surface properties. For English speakers this might sound a little odd. But think about the English ‘colour’ term roan: this encodes a surface pattern, rather than strictly colour – in this case, brown interspersed with white, as when we describe a horse as ‘roan’. Some languages combine colour with other properties, such as dessication, as in the Old Germanic word saur, which meant yellow and dry. The problem, then, is that in languages with relatively simple colour technology − arguably the majority of the world’s languages − lexical systems that combine colour with other aspects of an object’s appearance are artificially excluded from being basic colour terms – as English is being used as the reference point. And this, then, distorts the true picture of how colour is represented in language, as the analysis only focuses on those linguistic features that correspond to the ‘norm’ derived from English. 34

And finally, the ‘basic colour term’ project is flawed, in so far as it constitutes a riposte to linguistic relativity; as John Lucy has tellingly observed, linguistic relativity is the thesis that language influences non-linguistic aspects of thought: one cannot demonstrate that it is wrong by investigating the effect of our innate colour sense on language. 35 In fact, one has to demonstrate the reverse: that language doesn’t influence psychophysics (in the domain of colour). Hence, the theory of basic colour terms cannot be said to refute the principle of linguistic relativity as ironically, it wasn’t in fact investigating it.

The neo-Whorfian critique, led by John Lucy and others, argued that, at its core, the approach taken by Berlin and Kay adopted an unwarranted ethnocentric approach that biased findings in advance. And, in so doing, it failed to rule out the possibility that what other languages and cultures were doing was developing divergent semantic systems – rather than there being a single universal system – in the domain of colour, albeit an adaptation to a common human set of neurobiological constraints. By taking the English language in general, and in particular the culture of the English-speaking peoples – the British Isles, North America and the Antipodes – as its point of reference, it not only failed to establish what different linguistic systems – especially in non-western cultures – were doing, but led, inevitably, to the conclusion that all languages, even when strikingly diverse in terms of their colour systems, were essentially English-like. 36

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
by Iain McGilchrist
pp. 221-222

Consciousness is not the same as inwardness, although there can be no inwardness without consciousness. To return to Patricia Churchland’s statement that it is reasonable to identify the blueness of an object with its disposition to scatter electromagnetic waves preferentially at about 0.46μm, 52 to see it like this, as though from the outside, excluding the ‘subjective’ experience of the colour blue – as though to get the inwardness of consciousness out of the picture – requires a very high degree of consciousness and self-consciousness. The polarity between the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ points of view is a creation of the left hemisphere’s analytic disposition. In reality there can be neither absolutely, only a choice between a betweenness which acknowledges itself, and one which denies its own nature. By identifying blueness solely with the behaviour of electromagnetic particles one is not avoiding value, not avoiding betweenness, not avoiding one’s shadow being cast across the picture. One is using the inwardness of consciousness in a very specialised way to strive to empty itself as much as possible of value, of the self. The paradoxical result is an extremely partial, fragmented version of the colour blue, which is neither value-free nor independent of the self ‘s disposition towards its object.

p. 63

Another thought-provoking detail about sadness and the right hemisphere involves the perception of colour. Brain regions involved in conscious identification of colour are probably left-sided, perhaps because it involves a process of categorisation and naming; 288 however, it would appear that the perception of colour in mental imagery under normal circumstances activates only the right fusiform area, not the left, 289 and imaging studies, lesion studies and neuropsychological testing all suggest that the right hemisphere is more attuned to colour discrimination and perception. 290 Within this, though, there are hints that the right hemisphere prefers the colour green and the left hemisphere prefers the colour red (as the left hemisphere may prefer horizontal orientation, and the right hemisphere vertical – a point I shall return to in considering the origins of written language in Chapter 8). 291 The colour green has traditionally been associated not just with nature, innocence and jealousy but with – melancholy: ‘She pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief ‘. 292

Is there some connection between the melancholy tendencies of the right hemisphere and the mediaeval belief that the left side of the body was dominated by black bile? Black bile was, of course, associated with melancholy (literally, Greek melan–, black ⊕ chole, bile) and was thought to be produced by the spleen, a left-sided organ. For the same reasons the term spleen itself was, from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, applied to melancholy; though, as if intuiting that melancholy, passion, and sense of humour all came from the same place (in fact the right hemisphere, associated with the left side of the body), ‘spleen’ could also refer to each or any of these.

Note 291

‘There are hints from many sources that the left hemispheremay innately prefer red over green, just as it may prefer horizontal over vertical. I have already discussed thelanguage-horizontal connection. The connection between the left hemisphere and red is also indirect, but is supported by a remarkable convergence of observations from comparative neurology, which has shown appropriate asymmetries between both the hemispheres and even between the eyes (cone photoreceptor differencesbetween the eyes of birds are consistent with a greater sensitivity to movement and to red on the part of the righteye (Hart, 2000)) and from introspective studies over the millennia in three great religions that have all convergedin the same direction on an association between action, heat, red, horizontal, far etc and the right side of the body (i.e. the left cerebral hemisphere, given the decussation between cerebral hemisphere and output) compared withinaction, cold, green, vertical, near etc and the left side/ right hemisphere respectively’ (Pettigrew, 2001, p. 94).

Louder Than Words:
The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
by Benjamin K. Bergen
pp. 57-58

We perceive objects in the real world in large part through their color. Are the embodied simulations we construct while understanding language in black and white, or are they in color? It seems like the answer should be obvious. When you imagine a yellow trucker hat, you feel the subjective experience of yellowness that looks a lot like yellow as you would perceive it in the real world. But it turns out that color is actually a comparatively fickle visual property of both perceived and imagined objects. Children can’t use color to identify objects until about a year of age, much later than they can use shape. And even once they acquire this ability, as adults, people’s memory for color is substantially less accurate than their memory for shape, and they have to pay closer attention to detect changes in the color of objects than in their shape or location.

And yet, with all this going against it, color still seeps into our embodied simulations, at least briefly. One study looking at color used the same sentence-picture matching method we’ve been talking about. People read sentences that implied particular colors for objects. For instance, John looked at the steak on his plate implies a cooked and therefore appropriately brown steak, while John looked at the steak in the butcher’s window implies an uncooked and therefore red steak. In the key trials, participants then saw a picture of the same object, which could either match or mismatch the color implied by the sentence— that is, the steak could be red or brown. Once again, this method produced an interaction. Curiously, though, the result was slower reactions to matching-color images (unlike the faster reactions to matching shape and orientation images in the previous studies). One explanation for why this effect appears in the opposite direction is that perhaps people processing sentences only mentally simulate color briefly and then suppress color to represent shape and orientation. This might lead to slower responses to a matching color when an image is subsequently presented.

pp. 190-192

Another example of how languages make people think differently comes from color perception. Languages have different numbers of color categories, and those categories have different boundaries. For instance, in English, we make a categorical distinction between reds and pinks— we have different names for them, and we judge colors to be one or the other (we don’t think of pinks as a type of red or vice versa— they’re really different categories). And because our language makes this distinction, when we use English and we want to identify something by its color, we have to attend to where in the pink-red range it falls. But other languages don’t make this distinction. For instance, Wobé, a language spoken in Ivory Coast, only has one color category that spans English pinks and reds. So to speak Wobé, you don’t need to pay as close attention to colors in the pink-red range to identify them; all you have to do is recognize that they’re in that range, retrieve the right color term, and you’re set.

We can see this phenomenon in reverse when we look at the blue range. For the purposes of English, light blues and dark blues are all blues; perceptibly different shades, no doubt, but all blues nonetheless. Russian, however, splits blue apart in the way that we separate red and pink. There are two distinct color categories in Russian for our blues: goluboy (light blues) and siniy (dark blues). For the purposes of English, you don’t have to worry about what shade of blue something is to describe it successfully. Of course you can be more specific if you want; you can describe a shade as powder blue or deep blue, or any variety of others. But you don’t have to. In Russian, however, you do. To describe the colors of Cal or UCLA, for example, there would be no way in Russian to say they’re both blue; you’d have to say that Cal is siniy and UCLA is goluboy. And to say that, you’d need to pay attention to the shades of blue that each school wears. The words the language makes available mandate that you pay attention to particular perceptual details in order to speak.

The flip side of thinking for speaking is thinking for understanding. Each time someone describes something as siniy or goluboy in Russian, there’s a little bit more information there than when the same things are described as blue in English. So if you think about it, saying that the sky is blue in English is actually less specific than its equivalent would be in Russian— some languages provide more information about certain things each time you read or hear about them.

The fact that different languages encode different information in everyday words could have a variety of effects on how people understand those languages. For one, when a language systematically encodes something, that might lead people to regularly encode that detail as part of their embodied simulations. Russian comprehenders might construct more detailed representations of the shades of blue things than their English-comprehending counterparts. Pormpuraawans might understand language about locations by mentally representing cardinal directions in space while their English-comprehending counterparts use ego-centered mental representations to do the same thing.

Or an alternative possibility is that people might ultimately understand language about the given domain in the same way, regardless of the language, but, in order to get there, they might have to do more mental gymnastics. To get from the word blue in English to the color of the sky might take longer than to go there directly from goluboy in Russian. Or, to take another example, to construct an egocentric idea of where the bay windows are relative to you might be easier when you hear on your right than to your north.

A third possibility, and one that has caught a lot of people’s interest, is that there may be longer-term and more pervasive effects of linguistic differences on people’s cognition, even outside of language. Perhaps, for instance, Pormpuraawan speakers, by dint of years and years of having to pay attention to the cardinal directions, learn to constantly monitor them, even when they’re not using language; perhaps more so than English speakers. Likewise, perhaps the color categories your language provides affect not merely what you attend to and think about when using color words but also what differences you perceive among colors and how easily you distinguish between colors. This is the idea of linguistic relativism, that the language you speak can affect the way you think. The debate about linguistic relativism is a hot one, but the jury is still out on how and when language affects nonlinguistic thought.

All of this is to say that individual languages are demanding of their speakers. To speak and understand a language, you have to think, and languages, to some extent, dictate what things you ought to think, what things you ought to pay attention to, and how you should break the world up into categories. As a result, the routine patterns of thought that an English speaker engages in will differ from those of a Russian or Wobé or Pormpuraaw speaker. Native speakers of these languages are also native thinkers of these languages.

The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols
by Genevieve von Petzinger
Kindle Locations 479-499

Not long after the people of Sima de los Huesos began placing their dead in their final resting place, another group of Homo heidelbergensis, this time in Zambia, began collecting colored minerals from the landscape around them. They not only preferred the color red, but also collected minerals ranging in hue from yellow and brown to black and even to a purple shade with sparkling flecks in it. Color symbolism— associating specific colors with particular qualities, ideas, or meanings— is widely recognized among modern human groups. The color red, in particular, seems to have almost universal appeal. These pieces of rock show evidence of grinding and scraping, as though they had been turned into a powder.

This powdering of colors took place in a hilltop cave called Twin Rivers in what is present-day Zambia between 260,000 and 300,000 years ago. 10 At that time, the environment in the region was very similar to what we find there today: humid and semitropical with expansive grasslands broken by stands of short bushy trees. Most of the area’s colorful rocks, which are commonly known as ochre, contain iron oxide, which is the mineral pigment later used to make the red paint on the walls of caves across Ice Age Europe and beyond. In later times, ochre is often associated with nonutilitarian activities, but since the people of Twin Rivers lived before the emergence of modern humans (Homo sapiens, at 200,000 years ago), they were not quite us yet. If this site were, say, 30,000 years old, most anthropologists would agree that the collection and preparation of these colorful minerals had a symbolic function, but because this site is at least 230,000 years older, there is room for debate.

Part of this uncertainty is owing to the fact that ground ochre is also useful for utilitarian reasons. It can act as an adhesive, say, for gluing together parts of a tool. It also works as an insect repellent and in the tanning of hides, and may even have been used for medicinal purposes, such as stopping the bleeding of wounds.

If the selection of the shades of ochre found at this site were for some mundane purpose, then the color shouldn’t matter, right? Yet the people from the Twin Rivers ranged out across the landscape to find these minerals, often much farther afield than necessary if they just required something with iron oxide in it. Instead, they returned to very specific mineral deposits, especially ones containing bright-red ochre, then carried the ochre with them back to their home base. This use of ochre, and the preference for certain colors, particularly bright red, may have been part of a much earlier tradition, and it is currently one of the oldest examples we have of potential symbolism in an ancestral human species.

Kindle Locations 669-683

Four pieces of bright-red ochre collected from a nearby mineral source were also found in the cave. 6 Three of the four pieces had been heated to at least 575 ° F in order to convert them from yellow to red. The inhabitants of Skhul had prospected the landscape specifically for yellowish ochre with the right chemical properties to convert into red pigment. The selective gathering of materials and their probable heat-treatment almost certainly indicates a symbolic aspect to this practice, possibly similar to what we saw with the people at Pinnacle Point about 30,000 years earlier. […]

The combination of the oldest burial with grave goods; the preference for bright-red ochre and the apparent ability to heat-treat pigments to achieve it; and what are likely some of the earliest pieces of personal adornment— all these details make the people from Skhul good candidates for being our cognitive equals. And they appear at least 60,000 years before the traditional timing of the “creative explosion.”

Kindle Locations 1583-1609

There is something about the color red. It can represent happiness, anger, good luck, danger, blood, heat, sun, life, and death. Many cultures around the world attach a special significance to red. Its importance is also reflected in many of the languages spoken today. Not all languages include words for a range of colors, and the simplest systems recognize only white and black, or light and dark, but whenever they do include a third color word in their language, it is always red.

This attachment to red seems to be embedded deep within our collective consciousness. Not only did the earliest humans have a very strong preference for brilliant red ochre (except for the inhabitants of Sai Island, in Sudan, who favored yellow), but even earlier ancestral species were already selecting red ochre over other shades. It may also be significant (although we don’t know how) that the pristine quartzite stone tool found in the Pit of Bones in Spain was of an unusual red hue.

This same preference for red is evident on the walls of caves across Europe during the Ice Age. But by this time, artists had added black to their repertoire and the vast majority of paintings were done in one or both of these colors. I find it intriguing that two of the three most common colors recognized and named across all languages are also the ones most often used to create the earliest art. The third shade, though well represented linguistically, is noticeably absent from Ice Age art. Of all the rock art sites currently known in Europe, only a handful have any white paint in them. Since many of the cave walls are a fairly light gray or a translucent yellowy white, it’s possible that the artists saw the background as representing this shade, or that its absence could have been due to the difficulty in obtaining white pigment: the small number of sites that do have white images all used kaolin clay to create this color. (Since kaolin clay was not as widely available as the materials for making red and black paint, it is certainly possible that scarcity was a factor in color choice.)

While the red pigment was created using ochre, the black paint was made using either ground charcoal or the mineral manganese oxide. The charcoal was usually sourced from burnt wood, though in some instances burnt bone was used instead. Manganese is found in mineral deposits, sometimes in the same vicinity as ochre. Veins of manganese can also occasionally be seen embedded right in the rock at some cave sites. Several other colors do appear on occasion— yellow and brown are the most common— though they appear at only about 10 percent of sites.

There is also a deep purple color that I’ve only ever seen in cave art in northern Spain, and even there it’s rare. La Pasiega (the site where I saw the grinding stone) has a series of paintings in this shade of violet in one section of the cave. Mixed in with more common red paintings, there are several purple signs— dots, stacked lines, rectangular grills— along with a single purple bison that was rendered in great detail (see fig. 4 in insert). Eyes, muzzle, horns— all have been carefully depicted, and yet the purple shade is not an accurate representation of a bison’s coloring. Did the artist use this color simply because it’s what he or she had at hand? Or could it be that the color of the animal was being dictated by something other than a need for this creature to be true to life? We know these artists had access to brown and black pigments, but at many sites they chose to paint animals in shades of red or yellow, or even purple, like the bison here at La Pasiega. These choices are definitely suggestive of there being some type of color symbolism at work, and it could even be that creating accurate replicas of real-life animals was not the main goal of these images.