Russian Blues – Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher (2011)

 Russian Blues

The essay is an argument for a particular stance or opinion: the essayist’s central contention:

  1. What is the central contention of the essay?
  1. Explain the author’s central point.
  2. What is the author arguing for / against?


Is it possible that linguistic differences can be the cause of differences in perception?”

“…whether speakers of different languages might perceive the same reality in different ways, just because of their mother tongues. Are the colour concepts of our language a lens through which we experience colours in the world?”

  • This issue directly relates to the theory behind Political Correctness – that the language we use can and does shape how we see the world and how we act based on that understanding: i.e. in a language shorn of politically incorrect language we would be less likely to think in ways that are unfairly pejorative towards traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as ethic minorities, women, the mentally less able or homosexuals.
  • The discredited Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is at the heart of the issue being dealt with by Deutscher
  • Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf brought attention to the relationship between language, thought, and culture. Neither of them formally wrote the hypothesis nor supported it with empirical evidence, but through a thorough study of their writings about linguistics, researchers have found two main ideas.
  • a theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you.
  • a weaker theory of linguistic relativism that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

…from The Status of Linguistics as a Science (1929)

  • Benjamin Lee Whorf was Sapir’s student. Whorf devised the weaker theory of linguistic relativity:

“We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe…”

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds–and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way–an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”

…from Science and Linguistics (1940/1956)

Both Sapir and Whorf agreed that it is our culture that determines our language, which in turn determines the way that we categorize our thoughts about the world and our experiences in it.

For more than fifty years researchers have tried to design studies that will support or refute this hypothesis. Support for the strong version has been weak because it is virtually impossible to test one’s world view without using language. Support for the weaker version has been minimal.

Despite this, the theory behind the Political Correctness movement is that our language does matter, i.e. the words we use do shape how we see the world and influence how those who hear them day in day out see the world, and how they interact with that world – e.g. in a misogynistic way, treating women as somehow inferior to men because there is such a huge number of words in our language to disparage them, especially in relation to sexual aspects of life.

  1. What examples does the author use?
  1. List the examples used.
  2. Of what are these examples evidence?
  • Explain what the examples show.

In 1984, Paul Kay and Willett Kempton tried to check whether a language like English, which treats blue and green as separate colours, would skew speakers’ perception of shades near the green-blue border.

The same experiment was then conducted in Mexico, with speakers of an Indian language called Tarahumara, which treats green and blue as shades of one colour. Tarahumara speakers did not exaggerate the distance between chips on different sides of the green-blue border. Kay and Kempton concluded that the difference between the responses of English and Tarahumara speakers demonstrated an influence of language on the perception of colour.

Kay and Kempton concluded that if the names have an effect on speakers’ choices, this effect cannot easily be brought under control or switched off at will, which suggests that language interferes in visual processing on a deep unconscious level. But since the only evidence available in 1984 was based on subjective judgments for ambiguous tasks, their experiment was not sufficient to convince.

2008 – a team from Stanford, MIT, and UCLA: Russian has two distinct colour names for the range that English subsumes under the name “blue”: siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue). The aim of the experiment was to check whether these two distinct “blues” would affect Russians’ perception of blue shades.

While this experiment did not measure the actual colour sensation directly, it did manage to measure objectively the second-best thing, reaction time that is closely correlated with visual perception. But the average speed with which Russians managed to do so was shorter if the colours had different names. The results thus prove that there is something objectively different between Russian and English speakers in the way their visual processing systems react to blue shades.

And while this is as much as we can say with absolute certainty, it is plausible to go one step further and make the following inference: since people tend to react more quickly to colour recognition tasks the farther apart the two colours appear to them, and since Russians react more quickly to shades across the siniy-goluboy border than what the objective distance between the hues would imply, it is plausible to conclude that neighboring hues around the border actually appear farther apart to Russian speakers than they are in objective terms.

Kay and Kempton’s original hunch that linguistic interference with the processing of colour occurs on a deep and unconscious level received strong support some two decades later.

…the categories of the mother tongue nevertheless get involved, and they speeded up the recognition of the colour differences when the shades had different names. The evidence from the Russian blues experiment thus gives more credence to the subjective reports of Kay and Kempton’s participants that shades with different names looked more distant to them.

  1. What other theorists does the author refer to (or could refer to)?
  1. What do these theorists contend?
  2. To what extent does the author agree with them?
  • Why does the author agree or disagree with them?

2006 – An even more remarkable experiment to test how language meddles

with the processing of visual colour signals was devised by four researchers from Berkeley and Chicago-Aubrey Gilbert, Terry Regier, Paul Kay

(same one), and Richard Ivry.

Through testing which half of the brain got involved in colour recognition, it was found that the left hand side of the brain, the side where “Broca’s area,” was the main seat of language in the brain, influenced the speed at which colours are differentiated – thereby proving – it was found that linguistic meddling did affect the visual processing of color in the left hemisphere more strongly than in the right – so people perceive colours differently, depending on which side of the brain is used.

The speed of the experiment’s participants’ response was much less influenced by whether the odd square out was across the green-blue border from the rest or whether it was a different shade of the same colour.

So the left half of English speakers’ brains showed the same response toward the blue-green border that Russian speakers displayed toward the siniy-goluboy border, whereas the right hemisphere showed only weak traces of a skewing effect. The results of this experiment leave little room for doubt that the colour concepts of our mother tongue interfere directly in the processing of colour.

2008 – Using an MRI scanner as part of a similar experiment… it becomes clear that when the brain has to decide whether two colours look the same or not, the circuits responsible for visual perception ask the language circuits for, help in making the decision, even if no speaking is involved. So for the first time, there is now direct neurophysiologic evidence that areas of the brain that are specifically responsible for name finding are involved with the processing of purely visual colour information.

  1. List six important quotations from the essay & explain why they are important.
  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Of what is the author trying to convince the reader?
  3. How does this fit in with the larger debate on this issue?

“…colour may be the area that comes closest in reality to the metaphor of language as a lens. Of course, language is not a physical lens and does not affect the photons that reach the eye. But the sensation of colour is produced in the brain, not the eye, and the brain does not take the signals from the retina at face value, as it is constantly engaged in a highly complex process of normalization, which creates an illusion of stable colours under different lighting conditions. The brain achieves this “instant fix” effect by shifting and stretching the signals from the retina, by exaggerating some differences while playing down others. No one knows exactly how the brain does all this, but what is clear is that it relies on past memories and on stored impressions. It has been shown, for instance, that a perfectly grey picture of a banana can appear slightly yellow to us, because the brain remembers bananas as yellow and so normalizes the sensation toward what it expects to see.”

  • It is through looking at how our brain’s language centres influence how we see colour, how we react to it, and how we engage or can engage with colour in the real world, that Deutscher has managed to show that there is some substance to the discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language does affect how we see the world.
  • If the theory of linguistic determinism that states that the language you speak determines the way that you will interpret the world around you cannot be substantiated, and clealty doesn’t apply, then the a weaker theory of linguistic relativism, that states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world, would appear to have some substance.

“It is likely that the involvement of language with the perception of colour takes place on this level of normalization and compensation, where the brain relies on its store of past memories and established distinctions in order to decide how similar certain colours are. And although no one knows yet what exactly goes on between the linguistic and the visual circuits, the evidence gathered so far amounts to a compelling argument that language does affect our visual sensation.”

  • Deutscher shows that the interrelation between language and perception is complex – but real!
  1. Evaluation: do you find the author’s argument convincing?
    • Explain why or why not.
    • What evidence may argue against the author?
  1. What other evidence might support the author?

“In Kay and Kempton’s top-down experiment from 1984, English speakers insisted that shades across the green-blue border looked farther apart to them. The bottom-up approach of more recent experiments shows that the linguistic concepts of colour are directly involved in the processing of visual information, and that they make people react to colours of different names as if these were farther apart than they are objectively. Taken together, these results lead to a conclusion that few would have been prepared to believe just a few years ago: that speakers of different languages may perceive colours slightly differently after all.”

  • It is clear from the recent research conducted that Deutscher collates that language does affect how we see colour. The words we actually use do change how we see the world – we see seven colours in the rainbow because we have seven colour words for them. Russian’s see blue differently as they have two words for blue. And Tarahumara speakers see blue and green differently as they only have one word for both. That the ancient Greeks had no word for blue was not down to a psychological difference or deficiency: merely not having a certain word in their vocabulary affected how the distinguished colours in the real world and reacted to them.

“…in the twenty-first century, we are beginning to appreciate the differences in thinking that are imprinted by cultural conventions and, in particular, by speaking in different tongues.

  • There is substance to the informing idea of the Political Correctness movement: our language does shape how we interact with each other and the world.
  • If we have an extensive vocabulary with which to denigrate women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities, then we will live in a world where such
  • Simple proscription – banning certain politically incorrect words – may not be the answer – but we should use our language with care, because how we speak of women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities affects how they are treated by others.

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