Language Shapes Perception

Some years ago, NPR’s Radiolab aired an episode entitled “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” in which the hosts and some experts explored the role of language in human perception of the color blue.  Citing investigations done over a century ago by Lazarus Geiger and William Gladstone, the speakers noted an interesting pattern in the vast majority of the world’s languages: of all colors to receive words to signify them, blue is always last.  This raises the intriguing question of whether humans in the ancient world could consciously perceive the color blue.

The visual and neurological apparatus for perceiving color has not changed in humans for tens of thousands of years.  We needn’t necessarily take up the question of whether people in the distant past had the physiological ability to see a particular color.  Instead, researchers are investigating the role of language in reinforcing and deepening perceptions so they become conscious and immediate.  Indeed, the same Radiolab episode includes Jules Davidoff of the University of London, whose research of the Himba tribe in Namibia reveals that their language lacks a distinct word for blue, and members of the tribe demonstrate considerable difficulty in distinguishing blue from green.

In another Radiolab episode, “Bird’s Eye View,” the hosts discuss the Guugu Yimithirr language in Australia, whose speakers do not use relative words such as “left” or “right,” but instead use their words for the cardinal directions–”north,” “south,” “east,” and “west”– even when talking about parts of their own body.  These words continually reinforce their perception of geographical directions, and for this reason, speakers can always orient themselves as if they had a compass to look at. A 2010 New York Times article by Guy Deutscher (also included in “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”) also discusses Guugu Yimihirr and whether people’s thinking is shaped by the languages they speak.

This matter requires more attention.  Language is indeed the framework that gives true structure and dimension to our understanding.  Philosophers and poets have understood this for centuries. In his novel 1984, George Orwell depicted the manipulation and simplification of language as a means of restricting thought.  While Orwell’s story had a centralized political entity carrying out a conscious effort toward that end, me might begin to observe a similar phenomenon in our own world, albeit with a different impulse driving it.

Empirical results will demonstrate over the next decade the effects the digital age has on language and human understanding.  In general terms, people read less–much less. Their reading takes on increasingly digital formats with less-nuanced, stripped vocabulary. The material read comes in shorter pieces, and reading overall represents an ever-dwindling share of media consumed.  For all of the rich conceptual creativity of streaming entertainment media, its linguistic simplicity undermines the very ability of its audience to consume and sustain it over the long term. Life cycles of entertainment series will continue to shorten.  Quantity of offerings will take the place of quality and depth. The consuming audience will continue to fragment along demographic lines–by age, class, economic status, race, and other distinguishing characteristics. Literature in all languages that has sustained and enriched a common cultural consciousness–in English, that of Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, the Brownings, Woolf–will become increasingly unteachable.  Indeed, cohorts of educators will enter the profession with less of an instinct to teach anything apart from informational reading. What little humanistic reading that remains in curricula will gradually turn to sentiment and platitudes.

In short, we will continue to place a premium on the availability and consumption of information, but the human capacity to process it will atrophy.

None of this will alter innate human capacities or the human potential, but it will have profound implications for our overall humanity.  The trends have already become apparent, particularly when observing political discourse, people’s processing of current events, and the engagement that citizens have with their communities.  Over a decade ago, Susan Jacoby began in her book, The Age of American Unreason, to trace growing anti-intellectualism in America, and in one instance, she cited an impromptu speech Robert Kennedy made to supporters as he related the shocking news of Martin Luther King’s assasination.  In it, he quotes the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus from the tragedy Agammemnon.  No modern politician would dare–or even think–to make such a reference today.  This represents merely one vitally relevant submedium of language that we have jettisoned in the span of less than two generations.

Intellectualism will not die as a result of all of this.  It will, however, concentrate itself into smaller, denser, more isolated corners of society.  Learning will continue to flourish in those minimized sectors, but its benefits will not extend fully to society at large.  The portal to learning will remain open to those whose curiosity and inclinations impel them in that direction, but the reduced dynamism of our language will generally dampen such curiosity and inclinations.

No prescription will emerge to address and reverse these trends on a mass scale.  Still, in this moment, we can note the critical influence language has in giving body to our understanding of the world.  With research to demonstrate the capacity of language to give life to the perception of color or of direction, we can begin to imagine the potential that words have to activate wider modes of perception in all of us–if only the trend were moving in that direction. 

Just four years after Orwell published 1984, Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, a narrative in which the prohibition of printed literature–a lavish linguistic medium–eviscerates a dystopian society’s overall consciousness.   We can learn from this that the richness and nuance of our words determines the expanse of our experience. Those of us who understand this have much to savor and much hope to offer those around us.

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