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Color, Linguistic Relativity, And Other Trippy Stuff
Was Basho’s green willow the same color as Dylan Thomas’s green grass? Maybe not. Anyone who has heard the old—and false—claim that Eskimos have myriad words for “snow” has thought about how language influences our perception of color. A (totally fun, totally readable) post on the blog Empirical Zeal takes a scientific look at how language affects our perception of color, and why.
Shakespeare famously said that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. So does red by another name look just as deep? And what if you didn’t have a name for red? Would it lose any of its luster? Would it be any harder to spot those red berries in the bush?
This question goes back to an idea by the American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who suggested that our language determines how we perceive the world. In his own words,
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language [...] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.
You might say this is all tired fodder for hallucinogen users. However, things get more interesting when modern-day scientists start poking around.
A study in 1984 by Paul Kay and colleagues compared English speakers to members of the Tarahumara tribe of Northwest Mexico. The Tarahumara language falls into the Uto-Aztecan language family, a Native American language family spoken near the mountains of North America. And like most world languages, the Tarahumara language doesn’t distinguish blue from green.
The researchers discovered that, compared to the Tarahumara, English speakers do indeed see blue and green as more distinct. Having a word for blue seems to make the color ‘pop’ a little more in our minds. But it was a fragile effect, and any verbal distraction would make it disappear. The implication is that language may affect how we see the world. Somehow, the linguistic distinction between blue and green may heighten the perceived difference between them.
The post explains that different languages make different distinctions between colors—suggesting that Basho’s green and Thomas’s green were, indeed, different. That’s something more to think about when reading poetry in translation.