LINGUIST List 2.700

Thu 24 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  1. PETER GINGISS, Re: Whorf
  2. Willett Kempton, Whorf and color

Message 1: Re: Whorf

Date: Wed, 23 Oct 1991 08:44 CDT
Subject: Re: Whorf
Thanks again, everyone, for the suggestions on essays. Suggestions included
Whorf's Collected Essays, essays by Sapir and Bloomfield, G. Pullam's book, The
Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, essays by Sir William Jones and by W. D. Whitney,
Carter and Nash's "Seeing Through Language," Coupland's "Styles of Discourse,"
and Freeborn's "Varieties of English," and works by philosophers such as
Austin, Searle, Grice, and Stalnaker. I hope I have not omitted anything,
here. Maybe because of the recent discussion here, several suggestions
included Whorf, and indeed reading Whorf in my own undergraduatge career got me
started in linguistics. Again, I was delighted with the responses.
Peter Gingiss
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Message 2: Whorf and color

Date: Wed, 23 Oct 91 17:16:06 EDT
From: Willett Kempton <willettPrinceton.EDU>
Subject: Whorf and color
I'm a coauthor of the Kay and Kempton study discussed in several
earlier messages. (I don't follow this newsgroup regularly, but a
colleague passed on the thread.) As pointed out earlier, from the
tangled cluster of hypotheses referred to as the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis, we tested only one question: Do the lexical categories of
a language affect non-linguistic perceptions of its speakers to a
non-trivial extent? (P. Kay & W. Kempton, "What is the Sapir-Whorf
Hypothesis?", American Anthropologist, vol 86, No. 1, March 1984.)
Considering the complexities of proir research efforts, our primary
experiment was simple: Present three color chips (call them A, B, C)
to speakers of two languages, such that colors A and B are slightly more
different in terms of (universal) human visual discriminability, whereas
B and C have a linguistic boundary separating them in one language
(English) but not the other (Tarahumara, a Uto-Aztecan language).
As noted earlier, the English speakers chose C as most different,
whereas the Tarahumara chose A or split evenly (there were actually
eight chips and four sets of relevant triads).
I'll add a couple of points of interest that were either buried in
that article, or have not appeared in print. First, as the speaker
of a language subject to this perceptual effect, I would like to
report that it is dramatic, even shocking. I administered the tests
to informants in Chihuahua. I was so bewildered by their responses
that I had trouble continuing the first few tests, and I had no idea
whether or not they were answering randomly. In subsequent analysis
it was clear that they were answering exactly as would be predicted by
human visual discriminability, but quite unlike the English informants.
An informal, and unreported, check of our results was more subjective:
I showed some of the crucial triads to other English speakers, including
some who had major committments in print to not finding Whorfian effects
for color (several of the latter type of informants were available on
the Berkeley campus, where Kay and I were). All reported seeing the
same effects. We tried various games with each other and ourselves like
"We know English calls these two green and that one blue, but just
looking it them, which one LOOKS most different?" No way, the blue one
was REALLY a LOT more different. Again, the Tarahumara, lacking a
lexical boundary among these colors, picked "correctly" with ease and in
overwhelming numbers. The article includes the Munsell chip numbers, so
anyone can look them up and try this on themselves.
Some of the triads which crossed hue and brightness were truly
unbelievable, as it was perceptually OBVIOUS to us Engligh speakers
which one was the most different, yet all the visual discriminability
data were against us. (The article did not mention the hue/brightness
crossovers for the sake of simplifying the argument in print.)
Our second experiment, like the original visual discrimination experiments,
showed only two chips at a time. We additionally made it difficult to
use the lexical categories. And we got visual discrimination-based
results, even from English speakers. So there are ways to overcome
our linguistic blinders. (Which we knew already, or the original
visual discriminability work could not have been done in the first place.)
I don't feel that the differences across these tasks was adequately
explored, and represent a golden opportunity for a research project
or thesis.
I didn't expect to find this. The experiment was a minor piggy-back on
another project. I believed the literature and the distinguished
scientists who told me in advance that we wouldn't find anything
interesting. The experiment was going to be dropped from the field
research, saved by a converstion at a wine party with a "naive" sociologist
(Paul Attewell) who had read Whorf but not the later refutations.
A simple experiment, clear data, and seeing the Whorfian effect with our
own eyes: It was a powerful conversion experience unlike anything I've
experienced in my scientific career. Perhaps this all just goes to
affirm Seguin's earlier quote, as applying to us as both natives and
as theorists:
"We have met the natives whose language filters the world--and they
are us."
- Willett Kempton
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