Can Ideas Withstand Shifts in Language?

Elisa Gabbert in Guernica:

11374853816_9f8d3b4a59_k-e1457672711841There’s an idea in linguistics that until a culture creates a name for a color, they don’t really see it as a distinct category. It builds from the anthropological discovery that languages tend to develop color terms in the same order: first, for black and white (or roughly, light and dark), then for red, then for either green or yellow and then both, then blue (and so on). They don’t invent a word for blue, the thinking goes, much less for mauve or taupe, until they need it. Color terms proliferate in a world of dyes and spectrometry.

This has led some linguists and scholars to suggest that Homer’s “wine-dark sea” was not just a weird poeticism but evidence of the ancient Greeks’ entirely different perception of color: “As late as the fourth century BC, Plato named the four primary colors as white, black, red, and bright” (via Lapham’s Quarterly). It’s possible that our ancestors did not think of the ocean as blue; it certainly doesn’t look as blue from a boat as it does from a plane.

It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum though: How can the name come after the concept if you need the name to understand the concept? This problem of circularity always made me resistant to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strong version, which states that our thoughts are bound by the restraints of our language. The weak version, that language merely affects our thoughts, seems trivially true. What doesn’t affect our thoughts?

More here.