Friday, August 12, 2011

Through the Language Glass Redux

I had previously posted on Guy Deutscher's book Through the Language Glass" which discusses how language can help shape reality. The book rejects the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but presents a broader slice of language science to show early roots of the concept and the latest thinking which reaffirms the early findings that language does shape our cognition.

Here is a video that shows research into this area:

I especially enjoy the bit at at 3:00 into the video where selecting colour "differences" are shown. Since I'm red-green colour blind and "see" differences from what other see and have difficulties on standard colour blindness tests, I enjoy this bit showing this tribe being able to spot differences that Westerners can't while struggling to spot differences which are trivial for Westerners to see. Colour is a strange mixture of physiology and language. It is physically real and socially real with language overlapping differently and physiology overlapping differently in this one world that we share.

At 7:40 into the video when the experimenter asks "do we all see the same colours?" which is quite silly. It is well known that colour blind people see something different because their retina contains aberrant colour pigments in the cone cells. As a colour blind person I have to see something different but I conform to the colour language of the larger linguistic community and simply have to throw up my hands when tested closely and find I fail to meet their standards. I see "all the colours" but a careful test shows I can't make the distinctions normal people make.

And for more discussion of language, here is a previous post on language and reality I included a video of Yale philosophy professor Joshua Knobe and the Stanford psychology professor, Lera Boroditsky, discussing language and thought.

It is wonderful to see progress in this field. And it is fascinating to think how our "inner selves" are shaped by the outer world. This ties back to the wonderful private language argument by Ludwig Wittgenstein:
... all language is essentially public: that language is at its core a social phenomenon. This would have profound implications for other areas of philosophical study. For instance, if one cannot have a private language, it might not make any sense to talk of private sensations such as qualia; nor might it make sense to talk of a word as referring to a concept, where a concept is understood to be a private mental state.
Fascinating stuff to think about.

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