The problem with arm-chair hypotheses such as the Sapir-Whorf idea that the language you speak determines how you think, is that they are all-or-nothing contentions. Either language determines thought, or it doesn’t. Either the mind is innate, or it is the result of nurture. Things tend not to be so clear-cut. In the next issue of Trends in Cognitive Science Paul Kay and Terry Regier review research done on colour perception – an old Whorfian theme. Turns out that colour naming and colour cognition is neither strictly universal, nor strictly language specific. Say Kay & Regier:
The ‘Whorfian’ debate over color naming and colorcognition has been framed by two questions: (1) Is color naming across languages largely a matter of arbitrary linguistic convention? (2) Do cross-language differences in color naming cause corresponding differences in color cognition? In the standard rhetoric of the debate, a ‘relativist’ argues that both answers are Yes, and a ‘universalist’ that both are No. However, several recent studies, when viewed together, undermine these traditional stances. These studies suggest instead that there are universal tendencies in color naming (i.e. No to question 1) but that naming differences across languages do cause differences in color cognition (i.e. Yes to question 2). These findings promise to move the field beyond a conceptually tired oppositional rhetoric, towards a fresher perspective that suggests several new questions.
This review nicely complements the study Thomas mentions below.
Kay, P. & Regier, T. (In press): Language, thought, and color: recent developments. Trends in Cognitive Science, to appear.