Friday, February 18, 2011

Are Color Distinctions Natural or Culturally Created? More on Language and How We See the World

I recently wrote briefly (it was during my 1200 word limit period) about Guy Deutscher's book Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different in Other Languages In it, he's taking on the dominant linguistic paradigm (and Noam Chomsky) which argues that humans are genetically wired for language, all languages come from the same basic blueprint, and thus language does not affect how people think. Deutscher thinks it does. 

The first part of the book  was really interesting - it's about colors and whether they are 'natural' or 'culturally dependent.'  So I'm going to get into this a bit more deeply than I do with most books.  But remember, I'm just hitting the highlights, there are a lot more details that fill in the gaps in the book.

[I'd note this is also a great topic to put into your mental notes about how people know what they know - a basic theme of this blog.]

The first major foray into this battle for Deutscher is a discussion of color, or more accurately, a history of what scholars have observed about how humans perceive color. It's fascinating.  Deutscher tells us this is important in the debate between the nativists - language is genetic - and the culturalists - language impacts how we see the world - because people think of color as an obvious natural phenomenon. Natural phenomenon - like cats and dogs and birds (and color) should have matching words across languages while abstract concepts could be expected to differ more.   Thus every culture should have words for red, green, blue, yellow, etc.  If they didn't, then that would give ammunition to the culturalists.  (By the way, he does say that the concepts of cats and dogs and birds do have labels across languages that translate pretty easily.)

He starts in 1858 with future British Prime Minister William Gladstone who wrote a three volume treatise on Homer's Oddessy and Iliad. A chapter in the third volume looks at color in Homer's works. Gladstone's conclusion is: there isn't much and what there is, is peculiar.  The sea is wine-colored.  So are oxen.  Honey is green.  The sky is black.  Blue is never used, and despite Homer's rich descriptions about many aspects of nature, color is almost absent.  Gladstone hypothesized that humans 3000 years earlier weren't advanced enough to perceive as many colors modern folks.

Nine years later, a German philologist, Lazarus Geiger, intrigued by Gladstone's observations on Homer and color, examined other ancient texts and found the same general lack of color, and where it was the colors were strange.

I'd note that as I read this, I kept coming up with plausible explanations such as maybe Homer was color blind, only to have Deutscher explain away my point.  The idea of color blindness wasn't generally known in 1858 and since the lack of colors showed up in other texts, then everyone would have been color blind, which is pretty much what Gladstone was saying.

But the concept of color blindness was being discovered then and a German doctor, Hugo Magnus, went to Sweden to study a train wreck - despite the stop signal, the engineer went right through.  The engineer was dead, but Magnus got permission to test 266 engineers and station masters and found 13 to be colorblind. Deutscher writes:
The practical dangers of color blindness in an age of a rapidly expanding rail network thus became acutely apparent, catapulting color vision to a status of high public priority.  .  . The climate could not have been more favorable for a book which implied that latter-day color blindness was a vestige of a condition that had been universal in ancient times.  And this was exactly the theory proposed in Hugo Magnus's 1877 treatise on the evolution of the color sense. 

Then people began to realize that there were still people living in 'pre-modern' cultures and they should see what words they have for color.  This became a big deal and surveys were sent out to test as many 'primitive' languages as possible.  The results found similarly restricted language vocabularies.
No one could any longer just brush off their [Gladstone and Geiger's] findings as the overreaction of overly literal philologists, and no one could dismiss the peculiarities in the color descriptions of ancient texts as merely instances of poetic license.  For the deficiencies that Gladstone and Geiger had uncovered were replicated exactly in living languages from all over the world.

In 1898, W.H.R. Rivers went on an anthropological expedition to the islands in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea to study a group of people who'd only been exposed to outside Western culture in the previous 30 years.  He found their color words to be very similar to what was found in Homer and other ancient writings - black and white, reddish, green which included blues, and just different ways of using color labels - including black sky.  But when he gave his subjects color tabs, they were able to pair up matching colors.  So, the conclusion was that while they could see and distinguish all the colors, how they described colors in their language was very different from how modern European languages described colors.  It was the language that was different, not their physical ability to see the colors. 

This was a 'big win' for the culturalists.  It 'proved' that language and culture affected how people see the world.

Until 1969 when Berlin and Kay  published a color guide - Basic Color Terms -  based on studies of 20 language groups.  Their study showed that all very similarly classified the same basic colors as did European languages - black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, purple, orange, and brown.  The ball was now back with the nativists.  Language doesn't affect how you see the world.

Except, 20 language groups aren't very many.  As linguists began to test other language groups, things proved to be less neat, and a number of languages proved to have different ways to categorize the color spectrum.  There was also discussion about the order in which different colors gain names in different cultures.  Black and white followed by red seems to be a basic pattern, but then the others aren't as predictable.   This has left enough ambiguity for both sides of the nativist - culturalist battles to feel justified.  (I'm skipping a lot in the 90 so pages he covers this in.)

Deutscher ends this section by saying both sides have points and summarizes the state of affairs  as Freedom Within Constraints.
In light of all the evidence, it seems to me that the balance of power between culture and nature can be characterized most aptly by a simple maxim:  culture enjoys freedom within constraints.  Culture has a considerable degree of freedom in dissecting the [color] spectrum, but still within loose constraints laid down by nature.  While the precise anatomical basis of these constraints is still far from understood, it is clear that nature hardly lays down inviolable laws for how the color space must be divided. (90-91)

He also tips his hat to William Gladstone before going on to other topics (he suggests we're going to hear about space and spatial relations, kinship, and grammar) in the culturist-nativist wars. Here's a passage that showcases the kind of stylistic playfulness that makes this book so much fun to read:
A lot of water has flowed down the Scamander since a great Homericist who occasionally dabbled in prime ministry, set off on an odyssey across the wine-dark sea in pursuit of mankind's sense of color.  The expedition that he launched in 1858 has since circled the globe several times over, been swept hither and thither by powerful ideological currents, and got sucked into the most tempestuous scientific controversies of the day.  But how much real progress has actually been made?
After another paragraph that chronicles modern scholars' lack of mention, even knowledge of, Gladstone's contribution he goes on:
And yet Gladstone's account of Homer's "crude conceptions of colour derived from the elements" was so sharp and farsighted that much of what he wrote a century and a half ago can hardly be bettered today, not just as an analysis of Homeric Greek but also as a description of the situation in many contemporary societies:  "Colours were for Homer  not facts but images:  his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects.  There was no fixed terminology of colour;  and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself." 
I expect this isn't the last post on this book.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. You're probably already familiar with it, but an interesting book on this and similar subjects is "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" by George Lakoff. He looks at most of these ideas through the filter of category theory. His discussion of Berlin and Kay's findings within the context of prototype theory is pretty satisfying.

    You might be interested in this. Not a rigorous study by any definition but I dug up some fun links toward the end:


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