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Friday, November 28, 2008


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Colours are strange notion. What light we see is probably some random accident of evolution. Colours are merely different sizes of wavelengths. Yet, colours define our lives. Happiness is bright and sorrow is grey, wedding is red and funeral is white, red rose is love and yellow rose is friendship, etc. Green of greenery sooths us, and blueness of ocean calms us; bright red invokes danger, and dark night frightens us. We’ve internalized colours so much that we have given meanings to arbitrary difference is shades of light. Cultures have defined colours and colours have defined limits of cultural thinking. More developed a culture is, more names it has for colours. Ancient Greeks just knew four colours: red, blue, green and white.

Even though humans everywhere on earth can see all colours, not all languages have words for all colours, and if there isn’t a word for it, it isn’t really. To give common example, if a man cannot tell cyan apart from sky blue, does he still sees them differently? Scientifically, when asked specifically, yes, but not really in everyday life. Ask him to locate cyan wool and he will come home with sky blue. On the other hand woman can, and for her, world is different. Isn’t it interesting that our understanding defines our language but our language also defines our understanding. People who don’t have words for it find a notion difficult to comprehend. 

A research about words for colours in different cultures lead to following fascinating hierarchy:

  1. All languages contain terms for white and black.
  2. If a language contains 3 terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains 4 terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow but not both.
  4. If a language contains 5 terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains 6 terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains 7 terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains 8 or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, gray, or some combination of these.


Rolling said...

"language also defines our understanding" - yes, it does actually :) Orwell's 1984? The Outsider?

In fact, you were the first one to have pointed out in Nita's blog abt that sms NOT being communal, which brought me here out of curiosity, and am impressed that you understand the way language works - you know what?

Most language teachers in our country havent the slightest notion abt that - therefore, the way we TEACH-learn languages is "chalsey" work. Children who end up being good in it later, are either that bec of indiv efforts or due to peer, job or family influence. Rarely is it bec of the school.

For the reason you mention, is why we should take language teaching more seriously than we are doing now. Wish there were more people like you. But sadly u are one of the 0.3% elite :) wish you were an activist n I wd hve signed up quickly enuf ;) we do need some lang activism here now...Nita cd have inadvertantly, started a war in effect, if it werent for you.

Tho the subsequesnt commentators forgot to mention YOU, but atleast they caught on to the idea in time n tried to show her. "Shabd brahm" we say in Bangla, words are potent enuf to make/mar!

nice to know u. interesting blog u hve here.

Rolling said...

Er, it looks confusing:
1) reason am here? bec u pointed out smthng at N's blog, that, if it had been allowed to rest, cd potentially have caused damage.
2) language affects our understanding of th wrold and its affairs. it isnt just a passive tool like a pressure cooker, it gets influenced and it influences right BACK. so it is extremely potent - almost 'alive'
3) so it needs to be handled wth care
4) those who shd know this (meaning language teachers) DO NOT
5)was impressed to see someone so alert
6) my pre-occupation wth bad lang teachng-learning tht happens here got mixed up wth why I was here bec I got excited abt this post.
Well, it looks better now. So maybe u cd just omit/delete the other one. Thanks.

Ashish Gupta said...

Thanks Rolling for visit and kind words. You give me more credit than due. I am not expert on linguistic or its teaching though I am always fascinated by anything informative in most field, specially psychology.

On Nita's blog, though I see that people who don't see them communal are minority but I think that she is not acting objectively and is in very much passion and rage right now.

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