Friday, September 23, 2011

Language and Colors: Now you see Them, Now you Don't

by Madeleine Kando

Not too long ago, people believed that the ability to see colors was a trait that was inherited over generations. Even as recently as 1858, the British statesman William Gladstone theorized that Homer must have been color-blind because his texts don’t mention the colors blue or green. He concluded that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans at that time.

People in the 1800’s still thought that physical changes during one’s life-time could be passed on to the next generation. In Rudyard Kipling's ‘Just So Stories', the elephant gets his long trunk because an alligator pulls and pulls on it, until it is permanently stretched. Every child understands that this is just a fairy tale and that we cannot pass on acquired characteristics to our off-spring. Even if you spend your entire life dieting, trying to make yourself thin as a rail, your children will not be born like anorexic models. The only reason elephants have long trunks is due to natural selection.

Many primitive tribes don’t have words for blue or purple. So the experts assumed that these people couldn’t see certain colors (nature) because their language (culture) didn’t have words for it.

English (as far as I know) doesn’t have a word for that part of the face that is between the nose and the mouth: does that mean that we don’t see it? That is what Gladstone said about Homer. He didn’t use the word ‘blue’, therefore he couldn’t see blue.

I have read somewhere that eskimos have many more words for 'white' than we do. Does that mean that they actually see more gradations of white? Does speaking ‘Eskimo’ change the way you see reality?

In French, everything is either feminine or masculine. ‘la lune’ (the moon), ‘le soleil’ (the sun) etc. I must confess that I assign a more masculine personality to the sun than to the moon. Is it because French is my first language and I learnt early on that everything in the world is either feminine and masculine? Does a particular language influence how we think? Are English speakers more egalitarian and less sexist because they only know things by the article ‘the’?

I know from personal experience that I feel like a different person depending on which language I speak. French forces me to be eloquent and poetic. When I speak Dutch something urges me to be practical and non-emotional. When I speak English I somehow relax, become a pragmatic and no b.s. type of person.

So, which is it? Does language determine how you see yourself and the world, or does the world around you determine how you use a certain language? Chomsky said that there is something universal about language and that is as basic as walking or breathing. Others talk about ‘linguistic relativity’, which means that the language you speak influences how you see things. I believe that it is both. What do you think? leave comment here

** If you are interested in this subject I recommend Guy Deutscher's 'Through The Language Glass'.