Excruciatingly Large Things

Daniel Rourke's new website is:


Right - Left Brains and Blue - Green Realities

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"Scholars have long debated whether our native language affects how we perceive reality -- and whether speakers of different languages might therefore see the world differently. The idea that language affects perception is controversial, and results have conflicted...
...Many of the distinctions made in English do not appear in other languages, and vice versa. For instance, English uses two different words for the colors blue and green, while many other languages -- such as Tarahumara, an indigenous language of Mexico -- instead use a single color term that covers shades of both blue and green. An earlier study by Paul Kay and colleagues had shown that speakers of English and Tarahumara perceive colors differently: English speakers found blues and greens to be more distinct from each other than speakers of Tarahumara did, as if the English "green" / "blue" linguistic distinction sharpened the perceptual difference between the colors themselves. The present study essentially repeated the English part of that earlier test, but also made sure that colors were presented to either the right or the left half of the visual field -- something the earlier study hadn't done -- so as to test whether language influences the right half of our visual world more than the left half, as predicted by brain organization." - link
I find language fascinating in this context. It suggests that much of human reality is a composition of linguistic symbols - that in a genetic difference of just a few percent the evolution of language forged a massive chasm of perception between us and our related simian cousins. But things didn't stop there. As humans formulated new languages and new methods to transpose those languages into a mutually-shared false-memory (through writing) yet greater chasms were exposed.

You think these differences are a consequence of people living on opposite sides of the Earth from each another? Think again:
"...even artificial classification systems, such as gender, can be important. To an English speaker, the idea that words can arbitrarily be considered male or female or neutral is peculiar. It makes no sense that words like "bra" and "uterus" can be masculine while "penis" can be feminine. What's more, there is no agreement between languages. The word "sun" is neutral in Russian, feminine in German, and masculine in Spanish. Some psychologists argue that these inconsistencies suggest gender is just a meaningless tag. Boroditsky disagrees. To construct sentences in these languages, she says, you end up thinking about gender - even if it's arbitrary - thousands of times every day.
To test how this affects the way people think, she presented Spanish and German-speaking volunteers with nouns that happened to have opposite genders in their native tongues. "Key", for instance, is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German, and "bridge" is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German. Boroditsky asked the volunteers to come up with adjectives - in English - to describe these items. German speakers described keys as "awkward", "worn", "jagged" and "serrated", while Spanish speakers saw them as "little", "lovely", "magic" and "intricate". To Germans, bridges were "awesome", "beautiful", "fragile" and "elegant", whereas Spanish speakers considered them "big", "dangerous", "solid", "strong" and "sturdy"." - New Scientist article from 2002 - "You are what you speak"
It's times like these I wish I'd paid attention in my Philosophy of Language classes. Good job then that I currently live in Japan, a daily study ground for matters of diverging minds. Enjoy your linguistically resolved subjective experiences, wherever you may be. I'm off to study some Japanese...

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