Does language shape thought? A new study on color terms
Linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others have been arguing for at least a century over the provocative question, “does language shape thought?” New research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adds fresh fuel to the fire. An MIT News article summarizes the study: “How ‘blue’ and ‘green’ appeared in a language that didn’t have words for them”.
If you’re really strapped for time, here’s a summary of that summary (although I recommend you read the article!):
The investigation deals with basic color terms – single, common words for colors used by speakers of a particular language. Researchers who studied the Tsimane’ people living in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest found that speakers who had also learned Spanish began using two different Tsimane’ words to refer to blue and green – which monolingual speakers do not do. They concluded: “the way that a language divides up color space can be influenced by contact with other languages.”
Tsimane’ members generally use only three color terms, corresponding to black, white, and red. They also have several words to indicate yellow or brown shades, and two words, used interchangeably, for either blue or green (shandyes and yushñus). Not everyone in their society uses the additional color terms though. MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and study co-author Edward Gibson infers: “Learning a second language enables you to understand these concepts that you didn’t have in your first language.”
Your brain on language: The Linguistic Relativity vs. Universalism controversy
The statement by Gibson above points to a wider debate in linguistics and the anthropological/psychological/cognitive sciences. The debate pits a theory called linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) against another theory, Universalism. The questions these approaches pose have captivated me for years.
A very simplistic definition of linguistic relativity is that your native language shapes the way you think, perceive, and even act. There are strong and weak versions of this theory.
- Strong version (a.k.a. linguistic determinism): The language you speak (its grammatical systems and vocabulary) determines how you think and constrains what you’re capable of conceptualizing.
- Weak version: The language you speak influences how you think, but does not ultimately limit what you’re able to understand.
For more on linguistic relativity, check out:
- Article by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, How does our language shape the way we think?
- Boroditsky is one of the primary proponents of the relativity argument.
- Engaging book by linguist Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
The opposing theory is universalism, which I would (again very simplistically) define as espousing tenants like: thought exists independent of language; language differences are due to culture (not the inverse); and at the core, various language-speakers and their brains are more similar to each other than they are different.
- A subset of universalism is Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, which argues that “all languages share the same underlying structure,” and that “differences between specific languages are surface phenomena that do not affect the brain’s universal cognitive processes.”
For more on linguistic universalism, check out:
- Fun and feisty book by linguist John McWhorter, The Language Hoax
Acerbic Reddit commentary
The folks on r/linguistics (a linguistics subreddit) were critical of the Tsimane’ color research and of linguistic relativity in general. Some takeaways from the thread:
- People object to linguistic determinism especially because the idea that speakers are prohibited from e.g. forming a concept if their language lacks a term for it (a) seems nonsensical since languages are constantly evolving to capture novel concepts, and (b) implies that some languages are more “advanced” than others.
- Even if a group of speakers doesn’t have a single word for something, they can still refer to that thing with multiple words or other larger chunks of language.
- In terms of reaction times: When a human is quicker at distinguishing some element of their environment, that’s just pattern recognition – but for some reason people ascribe near-mystical significance to the realm of language and color.
- (One of the harshest comments I saw: “When you boil down the nonsense, it becomes: ‘learning something means you learned something.’”)
If you want to delve deeper into the cataloging of colors in cultures, I suggest Linguistic_relativity_and_the_color_naming_debate (Wikipedia), and the famous Berlin & Kay work, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.
Photo attribution: John B Fotografía