How do Russians see blue? Language may affect how you see the world
Imagine yourself sitting under a tree at your favorite park. The sky is blue, the breeze is mellow, and the sun is trickling gently through the leaves above. There is a Japanese word for these trickles of light and its called Komorebi (木漏れ日). This is a word I’ve been obsessed with for a while because it’s actually untranslatable; there’s no single word in the English language that describes the same thing. Untranslatable words demonstrate how culture can influence language and vocabulary. Japanese people probably had many thoughts about sunlight in forests and therefore the word was created. But have you ever thought about how words can influence how you think? Could having a word like Komorebi change the way you think about sunlight? Can language shape your perception of the world?
Language is the fabric of thought
In the early 20th century, a controversial idea was popularised by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. This was known as linguistic relativity (AKA Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism) and was the idea that the way we think is strongly influenced by the language that we use. This hypothesis had a “strong” version (language shapes and constrains all thoughts and decisions) that has proven to be too extreme; we aren’t slaves to our dictionaries. On the other hand, there may still be some truth in the “weak” version (language has influences on thoughts and decisions). While the evidence for this weak version has been minimal, there are still some interesting studies that are food for thought. This has led to one of the most interesting ongoing debates between neo-Whorfianists and its skeptics, just how much credibility does this idea have?
On the topic of colour: does language affect colour discrimination?
One of the more convincing studies showing an affect of language on cognition is a study focusing on colour perception. We all know what colours are: Red, Blue, Yellow etc. These are known as basic colour words, but did you know that different languages have different basic colours? For example, Russian has no single word encompassing what we would call blue. Instead, they have two separate words; goluboj means light blue, and siniy means dark blue. In 2007, Winawer and his colleagues based a colour discrimination study around this difference in language. He presented Russian speakers and English speakers with blue colour squares positioned in a triangle (one on top, and two at the bottom). One of the bottom colours matched the top colour and participants were instructed to pick out the matching square from the bottom row. Interestingly, the Russian speakers actually performed the task faster than English speakers! Dr. Winawer suggested Russian speakers had no choice but to notice the differences between light and dark blue because it’s a feature of their language. In contrast, English speakers do not have this difference in their language and therefore have to put more effort into telling the colours apart.
What makes the results even more convincing is that when the Russian speakers were told to complete a verbal interference task at the same time (reciting a string of digits), the difference between the speakers disappeared. This shows that the results were actually due to language because the interference was able to remove this effect.
Sure it’s statistically significant, but is it meaningful?
The results showed that the Russian speakers were faster by a whopping 124 milliseconds! Ok, I know that hardly seems like much but at least it was statistically significant, right? …Right?
While the study shows indisputable proof that there is some sort of effect of language, it actually ends up supporting both perspectives towards linguistic relativity. The Russian speakers definitely had some sort of advantage due to language, but critics suggest that the effect is so small that there is no meaningful effect on how we see the world. Nevertheless, this is only one piece of the puzzle and it’s going to take scientists much longer to fully decipher the mysteries of the mind. Is the effect of language really limited to 124 milliseconds? Or is this just the tip of a very large iceberg?
What do you think?