22 April 2008

Blue Iris Is Definitely Not the COTY in New Guinea

I guess I must have had my finger on the pulse when I wrote about linguistic relativity and the language of thought on Sunday: Christine Kenneally of The First Word wrote an article in today's NY Times (science section, and all; go, go linguistics) about that very subject, also looking into the popular example of colours.

It's the obvious example, really, for those investigating whether or not the language you speak determines your thoughts and your perceptions of the world, given how visual and evocative colours are and how widely the number and range of terms to describe colours varies cross-linguistically. Let's just say that Pantone would soon tire of picking a COTY in New Guinea, where the Dani language has only two basic colour terms: black (or dark/warm) and white (or light/cool). Even, more familiarly, some dialects of southern Italy don't have colour terms for blue and/or green (this is particularly odd as these dialects then have fewer basic colour terms than the Latin from which they are descended) and so speakers must resort to paraphrases like, "the colour of the sky" or "the colour of the grass."

Kenneally goes on to cite the linguistics undergrad's favourite example of Russian and its two words for what we call in English "blue" (one is a light blue and one a dark) and how people's perceptions of colours are altered in some experiments involving speakers of different languages selecting colours (although the central, focal colours are remarkably consistent from language to language).

It's certainly an interesting read, even if it didn't contain anything really new for me. Even better, the article contained a link entitled, Want to know more?, which points interested readers in the direction of related books (including Steve's latest, The Stuff of Thought, a great book by Ray Jackendoff, Berlin and Kay's original study on basic colour terms (which was always signed out of our faculty library and the University Library) and an interesting book by Stephen Levinson on linguistic relativity and how people's perceptions of space may vary cross-linguistically because of the way time and space are divided up and measured in different languages (I say, "My flowers are in front of the book" but some Native American languages, among others, would require me to say, "My flowers are west of the book"), which is probably a bit hardcore for all but linguists and the most interested laymen.

Linguistics seems to be on a bit of a headline-grabbing roll, at the moment; I guess that's what happens when all these scientist types start taking an interest...

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