language, thought and color. part one.

 How does the ease of expressing a thought affect how a speaker thinks? Do our communicative patterns determine the actual world we live in? Is color the answer to the language and thought debate? How does talking about color vary around the world, and what can this tell us?

       [Front Matter- Sorry I was late with this post. I ended up working at a wedding for 13 hours this weekend, and that threw everything off. To make up for it, I may post a midweek update. But no promises. The other issue I had is that I had trouble picking area to cover after the overview, as there are so many directions to go in. I’m thinking I will have monthly themes, or broad arcs where a handful of posts are about the same topic, starting with color, language and thought. After that comes consciousness. Probably. ]

now back to your regularly scheduled broadcast:

linguistic relativity and rainbows around the world

One of the biggest and oldest debates in cognitive science is, not unsurprisingly, about the nature of thought and how much that is influenced by the language we speak. This turns out to be a Very Difficult Problem, one that has vexed researchers for at least two centuries. The reason this question has inspired centuries of research is that it is low level enough to be solvable. This is important because if we can understand how thinking works, we cognitive scientists can sell this information to marketers and retail people for lots of money, retire early and not doubt our decision to go to grad school because we are living in Costa Rica. An actual answer as to why this is important is that it helps us understand how we work. Just as understanding the body has led to modern medicine and an increased lifespan, a similar thing will happen but on levels concerned with the mind.*

The reasons for the difficulty of the language and thought problem are many. The troubling thing about conscious thought is that it seems to be done entirely with language. Introspection alone would lead all of us to think that language is thought and that the difference between what we say out loud and what we say to ourselves is negligible. In addition, our daily stream of thoughts and verbal output is the final product of a fantastic number of complex processes that none of us have access to. Trying to probe the brain in other ways is no better because we don’t understand its architecture well enough to figure out what all the different cellular firing patterns mean. Perhaps a better way of phrasing the question is does the conceptualization that language forces upon us change the way we would otherwise normally think?

Does this picture have anything to do with the text? Not really. Is it a nice distraction? yes.

This idea was first expressed by a Prussian philosopher named (warning!) Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt, who saw language as a product of national identity and spirit. In his words, “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world”.  Benjamin Lee Whorf was one of the biggest proponents of this idea. Originally a fire-insurance inspector with free time, he ended up studying linguistics, and developed the idea that the language one speaks actually determines the reality one lives in. (Be wary of insurance people with free time: Charles Ives was an insurance person who got into composing, and his music sounds like this). Whorf, in his duties as an insurance person, found that employees were more likely to treat an empty gasoline drum as less harmful than a full one because the label of ‘empty’ brings up connotations of inertness. This is despite of the fact that empty gasoline drums are much more dangerous than full ones due to the combustible vapors. Originally Whorf’s idea only applied to how an individual might use certain words. However, this has since morphed into studying differences between cultures, in part because it is easier to study. Whorf himself was a fan of the name linguistic relativity, inspired by the name of Einstein’s theories.  To quote Whorf’s mentor, Edward Sapir:   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 the 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. 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 takes this claim to the extreme; the realities of the research about linguistic relativity are more mundane.*

Thus the linguistic relativity movement was born. From its initial heyday as nothing more than a few academics meeting in underground pubs and food cooperatives scattered across the country, it slowly grew to be an increasingly well connected network of industrial linguists, professors and unsuspecting undergrads who managed to find the wrong classroom on the first day of class. Soon, the movement had captured the hearts and minds of a few small countries scattered across Africa , not to mention the entire population of east Berkeley and half of the left handed people in the Netherlands. Just kidding. But there was a big push towards the idea that the language one spoke completely determined the world one experienced, and that there were no pan-human universals.

zen-ish color

Linguistic relativity turns out to be not just one question but several, a common theme in the cognitive sciences. What is the nature of categorization? How does language mediate perception and judgment of the world? Does the thinking we do to speak influence how we think when we are not speaking? How does our culture and every day experience influence how we think, and how is that different from the effects of language? And so on. Curiously, Zen Buddhism also holds that words and concepts ‘get in the way’ of perceiving the world, hence the goal of sitting around and trying to think of nothing. [that would be a cool study, to see if language effects were not as prominent in Zen monks (You’ve heard of it here)].**

There are many ways to get at these questions, but by far the most ubiquitous way to do so is to study how people perceive, think and talk about color. Why color? Because color is one of the few things that, around the world, is identical in experience but varied enough to be interesting. On the face of it, there is nothing about the physical spectrum to suggest natural divisions, and for the most part it would seem that color categories are arbitrary.  Most languages don’t split green and blue into two separate things, for example.*

A cool take on the color spectrum and color spaces. All Credits to Andy Gilmore.

In the late 60’s, two researchers at Berkeley noticed it was relatively easy to translate color terms from one language to another. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay thought this was odd and decided to investigate further by sending out graduate students to bilingual speakers living in the bay area. These speakers (or ‘informants’ as they are called in the literature’) were queried with questions about color terms in their native languages and were asked to sort 319 color chips. The patterns they found were curious, and they decided to investigate further. This led to the World Color Survey (WCS), in which 110 unindustrialized tribes were asked about color terms and color chip sorting. Informants were also asked to pick the best examples of each color at the end of all the sorting tasks. In order to keep things simple, Berlin, Kay and practically everyone else has only looked at basic color terms, or roughly what a kindergartner would know. In English, the basic color terms are black, grey, white, green, red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, brown and pink.  [For more on the world color survey, A good review can be found here .]

The surface of the Munsell color solid, aka the grid of colors used in the world color survey.

Berlin and Kay found that there is a lot of variation in how cultures and individuals sort colors, which would seem to show support for relativity. But they also found two trends counter to the linguistic relativity idea. First, there is a pattern to how cultures name different groups of colors. Some languages only have two basic color terms- the entire spectrum/color space is divided into light and dark, or warm and cool colors. Berlin and Kay discovered that the number of color terms can predict which colors are named. If a culture has three basic color terms, than the colors terms that that culture has are warm, cool and red. I will cover why this might be next time.  This pattern exists all the way up to eleven basic color terms (like that of English), where there is some order to how the color space is divided, even though for a long time is was thought to be essentially random.

The other trend that they found was that people seemed to agree on what constituted the ‘best examples’ of certain colors. Additional analysis has been done and found that people highly agree on what constitutes the best examples for the six herring colors (white, black, red, green, blue and yellow). Even when a color category is composed of what we normally call green and blue, the best example isn’t a vivid teal or  any other green-blue. Instead, they pick what you or I would call the best example of either green or blue, depending on the person and the culture. The agreement about best examples is considered one of the better candidates for a pan-human universal. And we don’t have a good idea why. It would be nice if the ‘best example’ or ‘focal’ blue lined up with the stimulus that produced the strongest ‘blue’ response from the blue-yellow detecting cells in the eye, but they simply don’t line up. Neither does green, red and yellow. This idea is known as unique hue and it is contested. [A reference for people who doubt that best examples are agreed upon around the world. (Don’t believe yellow though, I think that particular result is due to noise in the stimulus set)]

All of this led to a pushback against linguistic relativity, though this debate is far from settled. It’s worth noting that linguistic relativity vs. universalism is a reformulation of the nurture vs. nature debate, and the answers to both are similar- both sides are right in unexpected ways. As an aside, this also provides a good answer to one of the differences between psychology and cognitive science- Cognitive science operates on a  course grained level such that all brains are practically the same (universal), psychology takes a look at what goes on inside an individual’s head (relative).

Colored powder from the Indian Festival Holi. Courtesy:

Is color the best way to go about this? It isn’t entirely clear. The case for universal tendencies  in color might be particular to that domain, as higher level processing is less concerned with the cells and channels that contribute to it. Color is very low level and probably more due to the opponent process cells than consciously mediated effort, which doesn’t seem great for trying to settle higher level language-and-thought questions. However, the low levelness of color can work to our advantage, as we can attempt to see how much top-down control the mind can exhibit even on what we normally think of as components that are processed before we even start thinking about them. There is also the fact that most people don’t normally think about color. Let me repeat. Most people don’t think about color- sure, they observe it, but few people actually pay attention to the differences in colors in the world. Even more, most people don’t think with color, or with color terms- how many times have you said the word blue this week? Unless you are an artist, the answer is probably not a lot.  But maybe this works to the advantage of researchers, as culture doesn’t really affect which types of colors you see.

So, does language affect one’s thoughts? Not to over use one word on this blog or anything, but the data indicate that at best, language can color one’s thinking. The language one speaks does change the world one perceives, but only in subtle ways. In future posts, I will cover some of the more interesting ways this happens, as well as cover what has happened during the forty years since the World Color Survey.

*Everything marked by a single asterisk will appear in more detail in the next post.

**A preliminary glance at the meditation literature suggests that Zen Monks are way less susceptible to certain optical illusions than the rest of us. There is one in particular that consists of a diagonal line passing through an opaque square, the task being to ‘guess’ where to draw the line on the other side. Most people are off by centimeters, Zen monks are off by millimeters! I really want to study this when I get the time and resources.


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