Language Shapes Perception
Curled up in wooly beige socks and bulky yellow sweater, I was startled to find my socks and sweater almost identical in color. My artist friends would never make this mistake, but apparently I translate what I see into words (beige, yellow) and remember it accordingly. That old red rubber ball turns out to be a match for a sheet of dark orange construction paper. A friend who dislikes pink admires my “light red” shorts and “coral” shirt.
Research confirms that language shapes how we remember color and even how we see it in the moment. Believing primary colors to be universal, I marveled when my Russian instructor taught different words for light blue and dark blue. Do Russians see the world differently from me? Yes, they do. Asked which two of three rectangles looked the same, answers came most quickly from speakers of Russian when the outlier fell in a different color category. Responses were slower from English-speakers, for whom all the rectangles counted as blue, and from Russian-speakers looking at rectangles that were all light blue (or all dark).
If language affects how we see color, what other perceptions does it shape? Sound, smell, facial expression? Words blur distinctions within a category and exaggerate the divide between categories. Yet writers can’t communicate without words.
The lesson for me as a writer is not to eliminate categories but to categorize more finely. Rose, crimson, scarlet, mahogany. Acrid, fetid, noisome, putrid. Astonish, astound, amaze, flabbergast. It might not only enliven my writing but also sharpen my perception of the world around me.
12/12/2016 08:47:10 am
Ohhhh, she exhaled slowly. How many words are there for the facial expression where our eyes crinkle up, our mouth widens, our teeth may even show...
Grin. Faces are an area where I can definitely use help from my artist friends. I'm in the bottom tenth percentile on facial recognition, making for frequent embarrassment. Do you suppose cultivating a wider vocabulary for facial features and expressions would improve facial memory?
12/13/2016 12:08:44 am
Interesting! Reminds me of that saying that native peoples in the Arctic have 25 (or some largish number) different words for "snow." I find it fun sometimes to look up a word in a thesaurus and read all the different words that might substitute for it!
12/21/2016 12:05:59 pm
You can already distinguish powdery, wet, crunchy, or packed snow (and you are familiar with using these terms to describe snow), but if you learn more about snow, for example to be able to tell during an alpine hike whether the current conditions present an avalanche hazard or not, then of course you will start to see the snow in new ways. You will make distinctions you did not make before, even if you don't have buzzwords for these new distinctions. Clearly not only language, but also knowledge, can affect how you see the world.
Matt, good point about knowledge as well as language affecting perception. I may have trouble seeing the difference between two plants even when it is pointed out to me. There is a clear distinction to the botanist pointing it out.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.