Seeing Languages Differently

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50 Responses to “Seeing Languages Differently”

  1. step says:

    Interesting article. I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought, and he spent twenty or thirty pages debunking Whorfianism. His main argument was that people from cultures who use spatial markers like upslope and downslope (of a large mountain near their village), rather than right and left, have no problem with Western-style spatial tasks once the rules have been explained. For instance, if they are shown a set of object arranged on a table, then turned around to face another table and asked to “make it the same,” they will arrange the objects so that they are the same with respect to the mountain. But more often, they will first ask the researchers to clarify what “make it the same” means. If they’re told to arrange the objects in the same way with respect to themselves, the subjects of the experiment will perform exactly as Western subjects would.

    It seems to me that language doesn’t actually affect the way we think; it just affects the way we label things. All people can change their reference points while navigating, or tell the difference between the color samples you showed. If we couldn’t, we would be unable to communicate with people whose minds had been shaped by a different language from our own.

    • Anonymous says:

      re: Pinker

      In my experience (as someone who teaches a course on this topic) Pinker isn’t very reliable when it comes to presenting a fair picture of Whorf. Since at least The Language Instinct he’s had a weird obsession with proving wrong arguments that Whorf never actually made — for example, Whorf never builds a sustained argument that speakers are entirely at the mercy of their languages, and thus unable to think beyond them, though Pinker assumes that he does. Granted, Whorf’s diction was, at times, imprecise, and lots and lots of people subsequently misrepresented his arguments, but if you actually go back and carefully read through Whorf’s stuff, you can see it’s actually a quite powerful way to help explain cultural diversity more broadly. But since Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist, and thus more comfortable with universality than with diversity, he’s not terribly interested in explaining differences, except to explain them *away*. Ultimately it’s probably better to read the people actually working on these topics than to read folks like Pinker, whose strategy is to construct academic arguments why other people are wrong based solely on “logic” and “reason”, rather than going out into the world and looking at how people actually use language.

  2. TimeMachine says:

    Re: #22 “Spanish-thinking people feel that uncertainty is unbearable”

    The person who said this has obviously never been to a Spanish speaking country, spoken to a Spanish speaker, or even read a novel translated from Spanish.

  3. bardfinn says:

    I have Asperger’s, and along with that I have some mild synaesthesia. Particularly, I have certain colours that I “see” for written glyphs and spoken words.

    Growing up, “Two”, “2″, “Due”, and “II” were all the same colour of blue – a kind of nondescript blue, not very vibrant. Then, I learned German in high school, and learned “Blaue”, “Helle-blau” (or “Helle”) and “Zwei”. When I became conversant with those terms for Blue and Skyblue, my synaesthesia changed: “Two”, “Due”, and “II” stayed the same non-descript blue, but “2″ and “Zwei” became skyblue – Helleblau. I think some part of my brain dealing with the shape of glyphs co-ordinated “2″ and zeds, possibly also from a transition of the initial consonant from an alveolar fricative of hard Ts and Ds to the voiceless dental fricative of “tsvai” – “same” colour but shifted in hue and intensity as the spoken consonant did.

    Long story short, I like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — not merely for that (personal) experience but also because it explains a great deal of things I’ve observed. I can put forward an adaptation of Kierkegaard’s critique of Kant’s Categorical Imperative — not because men are lazy and can’t be held to account, as Kierkegaard supposed — but because differing languages and the paradigms that come with them, subtle or overt, change the way people actually view and conceive of the world, how they develop their philosophies, and what their priorities are.

  4. bardfinn says:

    Also, “first” and “one” were always a kind of emerald green. Upon reading a 16th-century reproduction of the map from a 11th-century Viking voyage to Newfoundland, it amused me that the land mass on the map, that is supposed by modern scholars to be Baffin Island (and which was their second stop) was called by them “Hellelend” – “sky-blue land”, second after “Groenelend” – their first stop.

  5. tedmands says:

    As an English speaker I use two distinct terms for those two different blues: “blue” and “light-blue”. I get along just fine with that distinction and have no trouble communicating the idea of different blues to any other English speaker I come across. The fact that the two terms are “linguistically related” is inconsequential. Actually that probably helps facilitate communication rather than hinder it. I think that I’ll drop the term “pink” and start using “light-red” since “light-red” is a more descriptive and accurate term anyhow.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Gaeilge (Irish) has a coupla different greens. One for natural items (glas) and one for artificial items (uaine).

  7. Anonymous says:

    As a Japanese speaker (and it appears I might not be alone on here?) I can attest that you begin to *think* differently as you reach fluency. You can not reach fluency without the transition. If this is acculturation or what it is I can’t say, but the mind is clearly thinking different in Japanese.

  8. Andrea James says:

    It’s interesting you chose pink and blue, since those are typically gendered in the West at this time as feminine and masculine, respectively. Though this has shifted over time and varies by culture, I believe the gendering of colors has significant overlap with the gendering of languages. I’d be interested to hear how distinctions of color and gender match up linguistically in other cultures.

    It seems that the assignations and connotations of colors can become very difficult to separate once they are connected in your mind:

    http://www.coolopticalillusions.com/optical_illusions_images_2/images/readthecolors.gif

  9. Vidya108 says:

    I remember first thinking about the ‘colour & culture’ issue when I saw south-asia-raised friends of mine dressing their daughter in red pants and pink shirts (and not on Valentine’s Day). At first I just thought they must be careless, but then I realized that they think about the relationship between those colours differently than do I, being raised in North America. Ditto for some of the popular colour combinations found in traditional Indian clothing — fushia + green, orange + green, and blue + orange are among popular combinations for saris and salwar kameez, where the contrast is considered more ‘dynamic’ rather than ‘clashing’.

    • arkizzle / Moderator says:

      ..dressing their daughter in red pants and pink shirts (and not on Valentine’s Day). At first I just thought they must be careless..

      Careless?

      Because red+pink is a fashion faux pas, or because girls should never wear red..? I’m confused.

  10. jacquesphoto says:

    Damn, you’ve made me want to study cognitive linguistics now.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m starting to study Cognitive Science with a specialization in Language and Linguistics in September. So excited!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what optical illusions might be perceptible to people from another culture, but not to us Westerners.

  12. Omir the Storyteller says:

    Part of the genius of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and one of the little touches that makes his world seem so real, is his labeling of the cardinal directions: Hubward, Rimward, Turnwise and Widdershins.

    I see that Caroline just above alluded to this.

  13. firebus says:

    1. Mike, what do you mean by “authentic” images? Do you mean images that come from the culture that speaks the language being taught?

    If so, how do you handle the case when a language spans multiple distinct cultures (probably some of which are post-colonial and have a conflicted or openly-hostile relationship to the past colonizer’s culture?) Does it matter?

    2. How does your theory – that authentic visual images are important in language acquisition – follow from the examples presented here? The Winawer paper only concludes that Russian speakers do a better job of discriminating between different colors of blue. I’m not sure I see how that is broadly “cultural”, rather than a merely linguistic difference, or how knowing that would help in learning Russian as a beginner, or even intermediate student. It seems more like the kind of thing that is delightful to discover once you’ve attained some fluency in the language.

    I don’t follow at all how the different cultural perceptions of optical illusions is related to linguistic differences. Segall makes no suggestion of a linguistic cause, but instead guesses that the difference in environment (city vs. forest, etc. etc.) is the reason for this difference.

    Making a leap to a linguistic relationship would require a another set of experiments – maybe we could study how speakers of the same language, raised in different locations, view the illusions

    3. Finally, I don’t see how the existence of these ties between language and culture necessarily support the use of “authentic” visual media. It seems equally likely to me that images from the culture being studied could reinforce preexisting stereotypes (c.f. http://waterwellness.ca/2010/04/28/perspectives-of-poverty/) and inhibit true understanding.

    Is there any research that supports this theory?

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  14. David Clausen says:

    It should be noted that speaking russian only provides on average approximately 100ms advantage in discriminating between light and dark blues compared to english speakers. Far more convincing on the impact of culture and language on cognition is some of the work on spacial cognition by Boroditsky. Speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre use an absolute directional system ( north, south, etc.) exclusively. Compared to English speakers which use both relative (right, left) and absolute systems, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers have an incredible ability to keep track cardinal directions which amazing precision. A nice, albeit slightly biased summary of recent work on language relativity can be found here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

  15. bkad says:

    I guess I have the same question about what ‘authentic visual media’ are. Is there such a thing as inauthentic media? I’m used to that word meaning either ‘real’ or ‘vouched for by authority’. I don’t know how it applies in this context. Obviously there’s a meaning I’m missing.

  16. Anonymous says:

    If you are from a certain portion of society in England, the two blues you have chosen have very distinct conceptual connections: “Oxford” blue, and “Cambridge” blue.

    Liked the piece as I invented the idea that language shapes perception as a small child when I started to learn a second language and discovered that there were things that that I couldn’t express in the second language and things that I could only express in the second language!

    • Caroline says:

      Anon @11 – Well, yes, here in North Carolina the two blues likewise have very different conceptual connotations — Duke blue and Carolina blue, respectively. But they are still both called blue and both seen as blue, not as truly separate colors.

      jonw @12, yes. I recently went to Hawaii on my honeymoon, and found this fascinating. Directions are always given as “turn mauka” or “turn makai” (mountain-ward or ocean-ward). As Pratchett fans, we started using “Hubward” and “Rimward” between ourselves.

  17. jonw says:

    a lot of island cultures have windward, leeward, mountainside and oceanside, and major landmarks as the “cardinal” directions.

  18. Anonymous says:

    A lot of languages have some other space distinctions English doesn’t, also… where we simply have “this” and “that”, it’s quite common to have “this”, “that”, and “that-way-over-there”.

    There are similar effects regarding time. While everyone is capable of producing concepts like “the next day”, there are some real oddities in verb tense… Japanese, for example, combines present and future as one tense, whereas some African languages have separate tenses for “soon” and farther into the future.

    And to follow the Japanese example, the biggest thinking difference, which is really quite hard to get used to, is probably one of the first ones you come across in classwork: yes and no with negative questions. For a question like “aren’t you coming to the party?”, English handles the answers as “yes, I am coming”/”no, I am not coming”. Japanese handles them instead as “yes, you are correct (I am not coming)”/”no, you are wrong (I am coming)”. There are plenty of other languages that use the same logic as Japanese.

    I gather that Lesotho and its relatives are even more odd from the standpoint of Romance-Germanic-Slavic language speakers; rather than the “person” distinction on words splitting only into I, you, and him/her/it, some of them have 11 or more… they tend to be something like I, you, my relative, other person, animal, inanimate object, place, abstract concept, etc etc. So for us, South Africa is “it” and a zebra is generally also “it”. But to a Lesotho speaker, they are treated as completely different categories of thing… “place” and “animal” respectively.

    (I have a cognitive science degree with the coursework mostly in perception and linguistics/syntax. I’m not fluent in Japanese, but took one year of it… don’t know any Lesotho, just had a professor whose specialty it was talk to us about it.)

    • peterbruells says:

      Hmmm, but we Romance-Germanic-Slavics have no difficulty in understanding the difference between those “its”.

      No sane German speaker will ever thing of a Mädchen oder Fräulein as a thing, even though the grammar identifies her as such. Genus vs Sexus.

  19. Zadaz says:

    Tons of interesting things here, but nothing, I think that would be a surprise to anyone who has lived in a different culture.

    I’d like to see more scholarship on the optical illusion thing because I have seen both of those illusions presented in Japanese texts as optical illusions.

    Giving directions is significantly different in Japanese, but I don’t think it’s language or culture that signifies the difference, but geography. Only a few cities in Japan use a grid with street numbers. Most use… well it’s complicated and non intuitive. (Which is why 8 of 9 cars sold there have GPS navigation.) Combined with a noodly street layout, 4-way intersections are rare, and streets rarely have names, making the standard way we give directions in the West completely irrelevant. Landmarks are much more important as are types of intersections. Cardinal directions are rarely used because streets are rarely aligned with them.

    Still can’t get use to “blue means go” though. (Green and blue are often con-fused in Japanese.)

    • StochasticJack says:

      When I lived in Kyoto, a lot of locations and directions there used the Kamo River as a focal point. For example, when I told people where I lived, I might say, “Kamo-kaido Izumoji-bashi, chotto sagaru,” or, “Just downstream of the intersection of the Kamo Highway and Izumoji Bridge.”

      Everyone in Kyoto uses the words agaru (upstream) and sagaru (downstream) to describe positional relationships. It would be just as easy to say “north” and “south,” since that’s the way the river flows, but very few people do.

      I’ve never heard of any other cities in Japan using this particular system, nor have my Japanese friends.

      I was a teacher when I lived there, and linguistic idiosyncrasies such as this helped me to identify potential blind spots in the learning process.

      • PaulR says:

        I live in one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces.

        Here, people travel ‘up’ to Montreal. They might travel ‘down’ from Fredericton to Saint John.

        The ‘up’ and ‘down’ are up-river and down-river. If you listen carefully to almost anyone from around here speak about traveling, they never get the change in elevation between two sites wrong.

        So, if you come from Toronto to, say, Campbellton, you’d be ‘coming down’ from Toronto, even though Toronto is further South.

        If you speak to someone from Toronto, the “up” and “down” is up and down (that is, North and South) on the map. (What do they say if the two spots are on exactly the same latitude?)

        • Anonymous says:

          If it occurred to me to distinguish, I would use “over”.

        • johnmcorg says:

          I believe that particular construct comes from British grammar, where one always goes up to the capital and, by extension, up to a larger city from a smaller one, irrespective of actual direction.

          As far as the red/pink difference goes, I remember there being a distinction in Scots Ghaidlig, but not so much in Irish despite their similarity: pinc vs. bán dearg (literally “white red”).

  20. Ottread says:

    Fascinating article. I wonder how being multi-lingual affects cognitive development. How do children who are raised bilingual, perhaps in English and Mandarin, reconcile these differences in colour cognition, and space, and so on. How does it affect their way of perceiving the world, and is this different depending on whether the child is being raised bilinugual within China or a Western country?

  21. Anonymous says:

    I think there’s a lot of universal in cognitive linguistics (if you go down far enough to be near brain processing). There’s a relation between thinking and language. Knowledge has structure. We put language into hierarchical, linked structures.
    http://www.nerdpocalypse.net
    would be a list of examples.

  22. standingstill says:

    This would be a good time to bring your recent ASL (Sign Language) thread back into the discussion. Considering that ASL is rendered in a completely different modality (visual vs. auditory) than the other 99.99% of the “spoken” languages in the world.

  23. PaulR says:

    I work in the field of photography, where there are only six (or nine?) colours: Red, Green, Blue, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow (plus white, gray, and black).

    Those two blues didn’t quite look right to me, so I looked the source code:
    “rgb(0, 68, 170)” and “rgb(170, 221, 255)”, neither of which are pure Blue.

    The reds are Red: rgb(255, 0, 0) and rgb(255, 187, 187).
    I’m just sayin’.

    Two Qs:
    What is/are the difference in perception between typical English speakers and English speakers who use the technical meanings/definitions of these colours when they think about colours?

    and:
    What effect does the colour of the lines have in the in the ‘whether the blue line is longer than the red’. Would the effect be as strong is the lines were black?

    • theawesomerobot says:

      Your tirade about only a certain number of colors existing in your world is just silly. Only six (or nine) colors in photography? What a joke! Sure, the process utilizes CMYK and RGB to create the illusion, but that’s not what you’re perceiving. This is an article about perception, not meaningless technicality on creation or any kind of purity.

  24. grikdog says:

    The flip side, Noam Chomsky’s Universal Base Hypothesis, based on the reasonable supposition that survival in the Pleistocene was more likely if everyone was on the same page, and only everyone on the same page survived, observes that languages are not especially peculiar, any more than driving on the left side of the road is peculiar. We all use recognizably human and very similar hardware to get around — no joysticks on cars, we’ve all standardized on steering wheels.

    Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jack Vance’s Languages of Pao, maybe a few others, keep this tired old Sapir-Whorf canard alive. I never met a Japanese fluent in English who had trouble applying Blue to blue or Green to green. Or 茶色, “tea-colored”, to brown!

    Personally, I believe Sapir-Whorf is bunk, but whatever turns you on. If you can demonstrate your effects in Klingon, maybe.

  25. Dewi Morgan says:

    My first introduction to language-formed thougth was being told as a child that “alone”, “lonely”, “lonesome” and “solitary” were all the same word in Greek, which implied that a distinction might not be made.

    Looking at the cyan and blue, and the two shades of red above, I was surprised to learn that I was the complete opposite of how I was meant to be, as an English speaker. I blame computers.

  26. Sialia says:

    I agree with Pyros that this was one of the most interesting articles I’ve read on Boing Boing.

    My partner was a talented artist, and had (like many talented artists) a knowledge of and fascination with color that was both intuitive and the result of training.

    She always said that, when she looked around her, she saw the colors as “warm” with one eye and as”cool” with the other eye. I wondered at the time if it had to do with her ability to put precise names to all the variations in color. Like bardfinn, she was on the ADD-Asperger’s spectrum and experienced mild synaesthesia as well.

    I often wish I could see the world in such flamboyant technicolor. What a gift it must be!

  27. capl says:

    The term “authentic” in language learning references “non authentic” materials such as dialogues created for textbooks, clip art and stick figures used to illustrate a visual point, and photos used across languages, found mostly in commercial software programs.
    The question might be: does it matter if you use a picture of an American house, sliced white bread, or American fast food to help people learn words and cultural concepts from another language?

  28. Pyros says:

    Wow, this is the most interesting thing I think I have ever encountered on Boing Boing.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I should say at the start that I’m convinced by Whorf’s original arguments and all the neo-Whorfian research that’s attempted to rescue him in recent years. I think there are interesting (largely case-specific) effects that linguistic structure, vocabulary, and “ways of speaking” have on different cognitive processes.

    But it should be pointed out, as Berlin & Kay did in their critique of linguistic relativity in the 60s, that there’s a big difference between *perceiving* colors and *referring to* colors. It’s definitely harder to assign a term to a specific example when you have 20 possible candidates, vs. when you have only one. If my language only has three basic color terms — white black, and red — I’d refer to both red and pink with the same term, though I could clearly see the difference between them. Or, more likely, I’d modify the pink one and call it “light red”, just like the real me would call the lighter blue swatch “light blue.” All of which is to say, and assuming no anatomical differences, both a Russian and I can *perceive* the differences between the two blues. The difference we’d have would be in *naming* them, and even then, as has been pointed out, the difference is tiny.

    The space stuff is much more convincing evidence for a non-trivial relationship between language and cognition. The work of John Lucy with Yucatec Maya is particularly good.

  30. drmuerto says:

    This is an interesting article and I am glad that BoingBoing is giving space to issues in linguistics, however, I find this article to have several problems that need to be addressed. Perhaps this was done in order to give a simplified explanation of the issues involved, but two major problems I find here are the author’s reliance on lexical items to explain linguistic difference and some sloppiness in switching the terms of the argument between “cognition”, “perception”, and “culture.” Both of these problems suggest that the author has ignored one of the most fundamental parts of human’s use of language— that it is always used in interaction with other co-present actors in a built environment.

    Reducing linguistic difference to simple lexical differences (e.g. the example offered of differences between color categories) ignores the fact that while those differences might be contingent from a purely linguistic point of view, they become extremely meaningful in interaction. The author’s anecdotal example of finally learning the difference when having to contend with the subway system demonstrates that perfectly, since it is only in having to navigate a cultural environment with other actors that he has to ‘learn’ the difference between blues, but he glosses over that point in order to further a reductionist vision of how language actually operates in the real world. It is interesting that a number of the commenters seem to intuit this problem as well. Note, for example, that comment #14 asks what difference working in photography might have on his/her ability to perceive subtle color differences. Of course that ability isn’t innate, but rather emerges through sustained work in a (micro-)culture that demands that those skills not only be developed but also expressed in very specific ways. The linguistic aspects of this are only important in so far as that person has to interact with people who expect others working in that field to be able to make those distinctions. That doesn’t mean that there are fundamentally different cognitive or perceptual differences at play, but rather that people in building cultural environments set out, often quite contingent and arbitrary, rules for what in means to be a competent actor. I might, add that that is really the point of Steven Levinson’s work, which the author cites, but doesn’t adequately explain.

    • Anonymous says:

      Since this piece is based on the practice of acquirig a new language with media, it is also based on the interaction with others. The examples only serve to point out that the visual aspect of language and culture is important as the interaction is different. Knowing the difference in visuals allows for more meaningful learning to facilitate better human interaction.

  31. somethingpi says:

    Very interesting post. It made me want to read up on the Muller-Lyer illusion. I never imagined that susceptibility to optical illusions could be culturally influenced (as explained by the “carpentered world” hypothesis).

  32. Anonymous says:

    Aymara speakers use ternary logic. That is, they are able to state precise levels of uncertainty:

    “Spanish-thinking people feel that “uncertainty is unbearable’ and has nothing to do with logic, whereas for an Aymara-thinking person, “ina” is a part of reality, and is as logical as “jisa” or “jani”. If Lukasiewicz had been a Qoya, he would probably have considered the bivalent logic of Spanish-speaking people as strange and worthy of study as polyvalent systems of logic.”

    http://aymara.org/biblio/html/igr/igr3.html

  33. bjza says:

    I agree with Anon that the space research is far more convincing.

    I’d like to see more research on optical illusions failing to translate across cultures. Does the 1968 paper really represent the best case?

  34. Anonymous says:

    Is not the theory behind this somewhat akin to the venn diagrams which follow the same theory.Like a logic class ‘IF-THEN-THEREFORE’?

  35. hhype says:

    Instead of a loaded statement like “Perhaps it is that certain languages are less ego-centric, linguistically speaking, and focus more on cardinal directions. ” Maybe the the distinction you wanted to draw was between relative and absolute ways of referring to direction. I will not try to put the absolute reference state in a negative light by referencing Einstein.

    When you say Western do you mean Western European languages or Western hemisphere languages like Quechua? Perhaps when you make the points about language you could use the language families instead of the less clear and loaded “western”. Am I just being paranoid?

    I see articles like these and I wonder whether the differences are real enough to inform culture and wonder what I am missing because of the cognitive blindness that comes from my particular upbringing and what new points of view and eye opening experience I could have with a new mode of thinking, or whether its all just wishful thinking.

  36. Anonymous says:

    When I was studying in Moscow, I was intrigued to discover that the Russians used an “internal timeclock system” when giving directions. So when I’d ask for directions to a particular place, the answer was always “walk straight for 8 minutes, then turn right and walk for 4 minutes, then turn left and walk for another 6 minutes – and there it is!” I’d say “wait – I’m from the New York City area, and we walk pretty quickly… won’t that screw up your directions?” I could not get anyone to say “walk straight for 2 blocks, turn right and head that way for 4 more blocks…”

    I asked a Russian buddy about this when I got back to the US, and he said the “time thing” made perfect sense to him. So we need to find out the true walking speed of the average Muscovite, I guess…

  37. Random Royalty says:

    There is actually a basis for both the Sapir-Whorf and Chomsky hypothesis. However what is presented here is largely a problem of translation and interpretation (e.g. learning another language).

    When developing a typeface for the Inuktitut language (AiPaiNunavik and AiPaiNutaaq), I realized that I had to throw western type design formalism out the window. Written Inuktitut is read syllable by syllable, whereby most Roman languages are read word by word. When looked at this way, one can understand the evolution of western typography as a system that progressively facilitates reading by the subtle refinement of letters that enhance word recognition. This is based on concordances of common words and letter pairs that make type designs relatively straightforward to evaluate.

    There are very few common words in Inuktitut, as words are assembled in any number of novel combinations on the fly as the native speaker utters them. Trying to design and test pleasing type based on a concordance of common words was just not possible. The solution was to design a typeface that made it easier to move from glyph to glyph using a restricted set of x-heights and angles (among other things).

    The moral here is that even with basic linguistic types, we are making assumptions about the structure of language based on our own unconscious pattern use of language in different forms of use (not just spoken but written).

    Like Marshall McLuhan once said, “Whoever discovered water, it almost certainly wasn’t a fish.”

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