Russian Blues

January 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Whorfian hypothesis” – the general idea that language influences thought – regularly takes a drubbing over at Language Log, especially when their resident linguists get wind of yet another instance of the “'no word for X' fallacy.’” This week, Mark Liberman (here) caught Rachel Donadio in the New York Times claiming that “Italian has no word for accountability.” This came barely a week after a debate at The Economist (“This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think.”) where Liberman had argued the “no way” side.*
in its common interpretation, which sees a list of dictionary entries as determining the set of available thoughts, this proposition is false.
Well yes, if you put it in stark terms like that (“determining . . . available thoughts”). But I would imagine that having a word for something makes it more accessible, more visible. Without a word for X, we are less likely to notice it or distinguish it from things that are close to X but not exactly X. Take colors, for instance.
Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (‘‘goluboy’’) and darker blues (‘‘siniy’’). . . . Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). . . . English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions.

These results demonstrate that (I) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference). [emphasis added]
This is from the abstract of a 2007 article, “Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination.”

That title reminded me of another article in the Times this week about a Russian and blues.

Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated

    And in a speculative moment in 1945, [Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues.

Nabokov was a synaesthete – his brain transformed the sound of each letter into a particular color. In his “colored hearing,”

The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony.
He was also very sensitive to subtle differences in color.**
Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’.
The fine distinctions among shades of blue in the Russian language and the Russian emigre’s interest in lepidopteral blues is surely a coincidence, but it’s one that might have pleased the novelist.

*In the voting, Liberman lost the debate by a 3-1 margin. That doesn’t mean he was wrong; it just means he wasn’t persuasive.
**In the literature course that he performed while on the faculty at Cornell, Nabokov would often correct the available translations of French or Russian novels. In one of these, the translator used the word purple. Nabokov would tell his students to cross out the word and substitute violet, then he would shake his head and chuckle softly at the translator’s pathetic error and mutter, “Purple!” seemingly to himself. I thought I had read this somewhere, but now I cannot find any such account.

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