By Andreea Calude 07/08/2017 2

Ever since the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, we may have all moved on a little from the “language X has Y words for Z”.

It has indeed turned out that all those words for snow were actually based on a mere handful of roots (basic core words) that then acquired various bits of words (morphemes) to make what looked like diferent words, with different meanings, but which were not really all that different after all (the common core bit is shared). So Eskimo words for snow were not a good example of what might have otherwise been an interesting phenomenon. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet.

In the latest issue of Linguistic Typology, David Kemmerer points to new research from neuroscience which would have us thinking differently about the implications of how our languages carve up semantic space. He provides a succint summary of how studying ways in which languages vary can make significant contributions to the understanding of how are our mind woks. This line of inquiry belongs to one of the most hotly debated questions in linguistic history: linguistic relativity.

Linguistic relativity posits that the language you speak will have some bearing on how you think. First associated with Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir and initially known as the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, linguistic relativity has seen both luscious limelight and bitter battering (see Evans 2014 for a review). Many linguists today decidedly reject the extreme version (linguistic determinism): given that there are more (multi/)bilingual than monolingual people in the world today, and given that they seem to get on just fine with their multiple languages, languages must surely not be complete prisons of our minds. But is there a discernable language effect in there somewhere?

Of blues and greens

A beloved area in linguistic relativity centers around colour words – unsurprising given that languages vary widely in regard to how many basic colour words they have.

Take for instance, Greek and English. They have one word for “green”, but they differ with regards to how they split “blue” colours. Like Russian, Greek has a light blue colour word (ble), and a dark blue colour word (ghalazio); English has generic “blue” (yes we have navy, azure and other variations but we don’t tend to use them by default, and our term “blue” generically covers all of these). This is not particularly enlightening in itself, but the fact that these words, even when unspoken have consequences for shape recognition might be.

Experiments in which participants were asked (Thierry et al 2009) to click a button when they spotted a square among a stream of circles showed that Greek and English particiants performed differently when the shapes were coloured in various shades of blue compared to various shades of green. Greek speakers seemed to be more burdened in performing the task by colour interference than English participants (that is, when shapes were coloured in various shades of blue, but not when they were different shades of green). All this even though the task was performed without recourse to language. What is more, when interviewed after the experiment, Greek participants did not seem aware of any colour effects.

In a bizzare twist of fate, this experiment seems to suggest that the language you speak may hinder your performance in certain tasks, not because of a lack of available resources, but due to an oversupply of such resources (in this case, varying shades of blue). Precisely because the default for Greek speakers is to consider more closely which shade of blue is being used, it becomes impossible to turn this thought-pattern off and focus exclusively on the task at hand.

Would you like your latte in a mug or in a cup? 

If you were in Spain asking for a coffee, no one would ask if you’d prefer it in a mug or a cup, because Spanish only has the generic word “taza”. An experiment involving English and Spanish speakers being asked to press a button (yes, there is a lot of button-pressing in neuroscience) when they spotted a bowl (both languages have a separate word for this) showed that English speakers were also cognitively affected in their recognition of bowls, compared to Spanish speakers (Boutonnet 2013).

Despite the fact that language was once again not explicitly used, the interference of a larger set of labels available had a detectable impact on English speakers (they were working with three sets of objects, mugs, cups and bowls), whereas Spanish speakers were essentially only working with only two sets, bowls and non-bowls).

The experiment made me wonder who exactly these participants were. In my own use of English – admitedly, not a native speaker, but near-enough – I tend to use the word “cup” as a generic term, with “mug” being a (sub-)type of “cup”; unless I am at a café with unsually minuscule coffee cups, I tend to not make the distinction at all. I wonder if baristas would be even more susceptible to the distinction than non-baristas. And if they would be, does that mean that it is not your language per se but your use of language (specialist training and jargon are relevant here) that will have a significant effect?

Window of our World

As often the case, the tough question to answer is: what does all this mean? Will English speakers remain paralysed by their latte-vessel choices and Greek speakers stunned by the varying shades of blue? Probably not. There is an old Chinese proverb which states that “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world” (xué yì mén yǔyán, jiù shì duō yí ge guānchá shìjiè de chuānghu). It is hard to dispute the existence of a cognitive effect in speakers whose windows provide them with different world views – but as regards, practical implications, the literature remains moot for now. We need more detailed descriptions of the ways in which languages vary from each other and the differing ways in which they segment reality (linguistic typology sets out to do just that). And more sophisticated neurolinguistic analyses. Only then, can we truely open our windows wide enough to see what lies beneath!


Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press.

Kemmerer, D. (2016). Do language-specific word meanings shape sensory and motor brain systems? The relevance of semantic typology to cognitive neuroscienceLinguistic Typology20(3), 623-634.

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge University Press.

Thierry, Guillaume, Panos Athanasopoulos, Alison Wigget, Benjamin Dering & Jan-Rouke Kuipers. 2009. Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106. 4567–4570.

Boutonnet, Bastien, Benjamin Dering, Nestor Viñas-Guasch & Guillaume Thierry. 2013. Seeing objects through the language glass. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 25. 1702–1710.


2 Responses to “Worlds of Words”

  • Interesting! Your comment about “latte” reminded me of my first trip to Italy, where I had been merrily ordering a “latte” and wondering why the coffee was so weak for a few days before I realised that “latte” just means “milk”, so that was all I was getting!

    • Ha, that’s funny Renee! Semantic shifts like that (the Italian word for ‘milk’ being adopted into English as a fancy term for a type of coffee) cause all sorts of confusions!

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