Does language influence our colour and number perception? JAMES NORTON thinks through language and thought

The linguistic relativity hypothesis has provoked much controversy amongst linguists, and rarely does anybody sit on the fence. Everett (2013) describes the hypothesis as “the notion that thought or cognition do vary in accordance with peoples languages” meaning that speakers of different languages conceptualise and view their own worlds differently. But does thought really affect the way an individual conceptualises their world? From my understanding of the Piraha language (Everett, 2008) and the lack of recursive numerals evident, to the limited amount of basic colour terms found in the Berinmo language (Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, 1999), it seems there is much evidence to support the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

The Berinmo tribe have fascinated linguists for many years with the most prominent work emerging from Davidoff, Davies and Robertson (1999) who found that Berinmo speakers only have five basic colour terms which means Berinmo is labelled a ‘grue’ language. David, Davies and Robertson believe that speakers of languages which encode all 11 basic colour terms conceptualise colours differently to speakers who have a reduced amount of colour terms available to them in their native language. Surely an English speaker conceptualises the colours ‘green’ and ‘blue’ differently to a Berinmo speaker who cannot differentiate between these colours and names them ‘grue’?

Berlin and Kay (1969) support the Universalist theory which holds the view that colours categories are innate physiological process rather than a cultural ones. This directly opposes linguistic relativity, as the hypothesis believes that a language is heavily influenced by the cultural experiences of many generations of speakers and language categories are not in fact innate.

Berlin and Kay’s (1969) implicational scale regarding colour further challenges linguistic relativity, as they believe all languages will develop until they have encoded all 11 basic colour terms, and languages which have not yet done this, such as Chinese and Thai, are deemed as ‘evolving’. By stating this, Berlin and Kay believe that everyone in the world conceptualise colours the same, and eventually through evolution all of the world’s languages will have encoded all 11 basic colour terms.

I would strongly disagree with this implicational scale and deem it false, as Mandarin Chinese is an older language than English yet English has two more colour terms so how does the scale explain this? Could there be cultural differences leading to the encoding of more basic colour terms? Also, the research conducted by Davidoff, Davies and Robertson, (1999) found that speakers from different language conceptualise colours differently depending on their first language. Surely speakers of different language do conceptualise colours differently, and it isn’t just the fact some languages are less evolved?

The linguistic relativity debate is fuelled greatly by many languages across the world which differ with regards to the gender of nouns. German is an example of this, as there are four different categories a noun can fall into: masculine; feminine; neuter; and plural. For example ‘die abtei’ translates to ‘abbey’ in English, however as the noun is feminine in German, does that mean a German speaker conceptualises an Abbey with female connotations compared to an English speaker who has no distinction between masculine and feminine nouns?

The Piraha language has also been viewed as a strong asset in the linguistic relativity debate, as Everett found in his 2008 study that the Piraha have no mental representation for sets of large cardinal numbers. As they have no mental representation of quantities greater than one, they are extremely restricted in remembering large numbers both spatially and temporally. An English speaker would encode the quantity through numerals which could be recited from memory, however a Piraha speaker could not. Does this not imply that English speakers conceptualise number and quantity differently to Piraha speakers?

One of the most influential figures to discredit linguistic relativity is Chomsky, as the hypothesis directly challenges his theory of universal grammar. UG holds the belief that the world’s languages share the same set of innate structural rules, and the linguistic relativity hypothesis holds the view that a language is constructed from the cultural experiences of its speakers. Again I would side with the linguistic relativity hypothesis, as it is evident not only from Berinmo and Piraha but many other small indigenous languages, that not all languages follow the same structure, and languages like Piraha deviate so much from Chomsky’s proposed structural rules that it is a strong factor in disproving UG and strengthening the hypothesis that is linguistic relativity.

I will end with one question, which refers back to one of the proponents of linguistic relativity – Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). If in the Inuit language have over 100 words for snow, does that mean that that an Inuit speaker conceptualises snow differently when compared to an English speaker who has less than half a dozen words for snow?

JAMES NORTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., & Roberson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature398(6724), 203.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science306(5695), 496-499.

Whorf, B. L. (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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One thought on “Does language influence our colour and number perception? JAMES NORTON thinks through language and thought

  1. Tiffany Woodward says:

    Hi James,
    I really enjoyed reading your informed input into such an interesting linguistic debate! You show great knowledge for the topic, and the personal opinion that you convey through this post highlights your enthusiasm for the discussion of the language and thought debate. Your discussion of the Berinmo tribe and their ‘grue’ language is very interesting! I agree that it makes sense to believe that speakers unable to differentiate between ‘blue’ and ‘green’ would perceive the colours differently. As you say, there is much evidence for this! One of the more well-known experiments is that of the colour blue for Russian speakers. Are you aware of this research? In Russian, there is no word for just ‘blue’ only ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’. Researchers have looked into whether this use of language to categorise colour affects the thoughts of the Russian speakers, and it was found that it did!
    I, like you, find issues in the implicational scale of Berlin and Kay (1969). For Mandarin Chinese in particular to be described as ‘evolving’ does not seem right. As you point out, the language is even older and English, but further than this, Mandarin Chinese has around 870 million native speakers worldwide, that excludes the millions of speakers using Mandarin Chinese as a second language. It baffles me that a language with that much history, and that many speakers, can be described as ‘evolving’.
    A great post, James, and a very interesting debate for discussion!

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