LINGUIST List 2.700

Thu 24 Oct 1991

Disc: Whorf

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  • PETER GINGISS, Re: Whorf
  • 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

    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