Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Linguistic Relativity

"Consider a rainbow or a spectrum from a prism. There is a continuous gradation of color from one end to the other. That is, at any point there is only a small difference in the colors immediately adjacent at either side. Yet an American describing it will list the hues as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple or something of the kind. The continuous gradation of color which exists in nature is represented in language by a series of discrete categories. This is an instance of the structuring of content. There is nothing inherent either in the spectrum or the human perception of it which would compel its division in this way. The specific method of division is part of the structure of English.

By contrast, speakers of other languages classify colors in much different ways. In the accompanying diagram, a rough indication is given of the way in which the spectral colors are divided by speakers of English, Shona (a language of Rhodesia), and Bassa (a language of Liberia)."

Image and text from H. A. Gleason's "An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics (Revised Edition)" (1961), p. 4.

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