Language and Color

Those people who regularly read my articles will know that, although my educational background is that of a scientist, I frequently criticize science in respect of its inability to say anything useful about the nature of reality. Because science can only operate by virtue of a subject making observations on an object, it only has validity in the empirical realm (vyavahAra). Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that science can sometimes throw light upon the thorny topics that we frequently encounter in advaita.  An obvious example of this is the findings of Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner regarding free will, about which I have written several times. Accordingly, I was very interested to hear recently (on a BBC Horizon program about how we perceive color) that scientists have carried out experiments which demonstrate that language affects the way in which we see the world.

I did not expect to see anything relating to advaita in the program but, when they described an experiment concerning the Himba tribe of northern Namibia, it quickly became clear that this was relevant to the vAchArambhaNa sutras from the Chandogya Upanishad.  

Of course, we know that there is no such thing as color in reality. The wavelength of the light that is reflected off an object is dependent upon the electronic orbitals around atoms in the surface material of the object. And we relate this wavelength directly to colors of the spectrum. The eyes have receptors in the retina, which are sensitive to different wavelengths. But the actual sensation of color is something that the brain constructs when the signals arrive along the optic nerve.

The point being made by the program was that the Himba tribe only have five words to describe the major color categories, whereas we have 11 (named in English as: red, green, blue, yellow, black, white, grey, pink, orange, purple and brown). For example, they use the same word for both blue and green. And, whereas we would differentiate dark blue, dark green, dark brown, dark purple, dark red and black, the Himba have the single word ‘zoozu’ to refer to them all. The implication of this is that they do not differentiate between some colors that we see as distinct. And, sure enough, if they are shown a page containing a number of green squares and one blue square, they have great difficulty in picking the odd one out.

The reason why the Himba tribe have so few words seems fairly clear. They have no need! They never come into contact with pure, highly saturated colors in their environment. And they have no contact with ‘civilization’, with its brightly colored advertising etc. So one can imagine that they never encounter some of our category colors, or at least have no desire to make a fashion statement about them! But it seems that this fact is actually causing them to see the world differently. The language that they use is effectively ‘creating’ the world that they see.

Although I have been perfectly happy with the concept, that it is by giving something a name that we effectively create separation where none exists, this is the first time I have encountered a specifically cited scientific example. (The relevant phrase in the Chandogya is ‘vAchArambhaNaM vikAro nAmadheyaM’ and it emphasizes that all objects have no substantive other than brahman. vAchArambhaNa is a Vedic form of vAgAlambhana, which means it depends upon mere words or on some merely verbal difference. vikAro nAmadheyaM means that the vikaraH, transformation, is nAmadheya, a name only.)

And a little research on the Internet shows that this is not the only example. Here is a quote from Curtis Hardin, PhD, a social psychologist at Brooklyn College. He says, “The strongest finding is that with increasing linguistic competence, the correlation between memory and language scheme increased, while the correlation between memory and perceptual space decreased.”  And here is a quote from Wikipedia under the subject heading ‘Linguistic Relativity’: “The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is generally understood as having two different versions: (i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.” And Wilhelm von Humboldt said in 1820: “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.

Thus, for example, Roberson, Davidoff and Shapiro (2002) found that speakers of a language that does not distinguish basic shape categories (square, circle, and triangle) were unable to sort stimuli into these categories. And another interesting example is given by Lera Boroditsky, who is assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University. She refers to an Aboriginal tribe – the Kuuk Thaayorre (or should that be kUk thAyorre?) in northern Australia: ‘Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.’ And this is the case in all conversations in which spatial terms are used, even down to something like ‘There’s an ant on your southeast leg’! Needless to say, this intimate association with direction means that their ability to navigate is exceptional.

It reminds me of ‘The Revolving Boy’ to which I referred in my book ‘How To Meet Yourself’: “Sometime in my teens, I read a very original Science Fiction book called ‘The Revolving Boy’ by Gertrude Friedburg. It was about a child supposedly born on a spacecraft traveling between planets in zero gravity. Somehow, this novel circumstance had an effect on the development of his brain and gave him an absolute sense of direction so that he actually knew how he was positioned with respect to the stars wherever he might happen to be. An unwanted side effect of this was an irresistible urge that he felt to maintain this orientation intact. Thus, for example, if he descended a spiral staircase, when he eventually reached the bottom, he was obliged to spin around in the opposite direction until he recovered the relative position he had begun with at the top of the stairs.

Here, too, in order for the Kuuk Thaayore to be able to hold discussions that refer to position or direction, they have to know at all times which direction is North! As Boroditsky says: ‘The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

And this way of thinking affects their concept of time, also. You will be aware of the tests that we give to children asking them to arrange some picture cards in their correct order. These cards will show something happening and will only make sense in a particular order, like building a house say, beginning with a hole in the ground and a pile of bricks and ending with curtains at the window and smoke coming out the chimney. When the experimenters asked the Kuuk Thaayore to do this, instead of arranging them from left to right as we would do (or maybe right to left if you are Hebrew or top to bottom if Chinese), they arranged them from East to West, regardless of where they were sitting. And this is how they represent time.

Another aspect mentioned by Boroditsky is that languages which utilize genders affect the way that people perceive objects. Thus, for example:

In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender.

She concludes her article (which you can read at Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives. We could make a leap here and add: Language also effectively creates the world of duality and prevents us from recognizing that everything is Brahman!

(This was posted to Advaita Academy over 10 years ago and is not currently available on the Internet.)

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