Whether or not language actually does affect how

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- Whether or not language actually does affect how people think is a very hard thing to test - how can you separate thought and language? - tested (in a small way) by projects that asked people of different cultures to group or name color samples (like paint color chips) - languages as used by non-specialist speakers have differing numbers of basic color terms - that is, ones that mean just a color (“red”, “green”, “blue”) - additional colors have to be explained or indicated with metaphors (“sky blue”, “rose”) - of course, experts in color (painters, fashion designers, makeup artists, consumers of fashion products, etc.) may have additional specialized terms that most speakers of the language do not know - a few languages have just two basic terms: light and dark (white and black) - others have three, four, five… up to about ten that are widely used - consider how we conventionally divide the spectrum: - Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet - I have always had some doubts about “indigo”; I suspect it is there to make the mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” pronounceable - and your article by Thomson on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that English speakers usually use “purple” to cover both indigo and violet (as I would) - so that is 6 basic color terms in English, plus black and white - point: languages divide up the color spectrum in different ways - these categories, and where the lines fall between them, are… you guessed it… arbitrary social constructs - and they DO affect peoples’ thinking - one study showed people a color chip, then later asked them to pick out that chip from among a bunch of similar ones
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Intro to Cultural Anthro F 2011 / Owen: Language and thought p. 5 - when the chip was in the middle of a range of colors with a name in the person’s language, he or she was better able to remember and recognize the color later - when the chip was near the edge of a color category, that is, was a borderline case, the person did less well at recognizing it - the colors they could remember well were determined by the language that they spoke! - A related concept: focal vocabulary - most languages divide certain areas of experience into many, detailed categories - like the Philippine Hanunóo with their 92 named types of rice - a Hanunóo can make very fine distinctions about rice that most Americans cannot - Americans can make many fine distinctions about types of cars, which a Hanunóo probably could not - a California Yuppie, who can easy make many fine distinctions about cheese, which all just seems like “cheese” a provincial Peruvian - the Peruvian can identify and name many varieties of music (salsa, cumbia, rhumba, samba, mambo, marengue, etc.) - which all sound to many English speakers more or less like “Latin music” or (incorrectly) “salsa” - of course, each of these people could learn to make the distinctions that the other ones do - focal vocabulary suggests things that are relevant or important to speakers of the language - that they have to be able to communicate frequently, efficiently, and precisely about - but also presumably facilitates thinking about those things - if you have the words for fine distinctions, you know the relevant features to look for (and what variation you can ignore) - you might notice subtle differences that are far too slight for someone who does not know
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