[b-hebrew] Colors and language

JAMES CHRISTIAN READ JCR128 at student.anglia.ac.uk
Tue Aug 21 09:16:08 EDT 2007

YS:But what he claims with the Piraha is that they do
not have a single word for any color names.  Thus, one day
they may say, take the gold-colored bowl, the next day,
take the fire-colored bowl, etc.  The choice changes as the
mood changes, and this is not because there are
synonyms in the vocabulary, but because color names are
not in their vocabulary.

JCR: I'm not sure where you are getting this argument 
from. But it's not presented in any of the links you 
provided. In fact, one of the articles you directly 
linked to, namely, 
argues that Everette's summary of Piraha colours needs 
more work and quotes an admission from Dan himself to 
this effect:

DE:    Paul is absolutely correct in what he says about Pirahã color terms. He very kindly provided me with a new set of experimental materials, sitting on my dining room table at present, and I will be re-running the experiments. I am not sure where the NYr got the dates on Sheldon's work.

    I think that the experience of color is concrete but that the labeling of it is not, following some work by John Lyons and others. However, if Pirahã turns out to have color terms, I shall certainly let people know and maybe be convinced that Paul is correct that this bolsters my case. In any case, Paul and Brent Berlin discussed all of this with me for hours and have been extremely helpful in improving my understanding of the issues. 

JCR: It is impossible for the Piraha to not understand 
colour because it is an intrinsic part of our cognitive 
development (the foundation upon which we build 
language). We use shape discrimination to categorise 
solid objects, both animate and inanimate while we use 
colour to discriminate liquid objects (inherently have 
no shape to use for discrimination) as emphasised by 
the following scenario:

"I can see three glasses. Two hold clear liquids the 
other holds a red liquid. One is water, one is water 
dyed red and the other is hydrochloric acid and I'm

While one could argue about the differences in their 
manner of expression of colour the fact remains that 
they can express colour as limitlessly as we can or 
any other culture for that matter. The theoretical 
lack of a standardised system of colours only goes to 
highlight their ancient style hunter gatherer culture 
which only really seems to take an interest in matters 
which pertain to their day to day survival. One may 
also make a similar contrast between my limited range 
of colour usage to that of an interior designer who 
rambles on about bordeaux hues, magenta contrasts and 
such like. To the veteran interior designer I with my 
colours of the rainbow vocabulary probably seem like a 
colour heathen of the worst extreme.

Anyway, back to the Hebrew. The reason I brought all of 
this up is because Isaac really needs to put his theory 
within the framework of linguistics and saying that 
'indo-european languages have lost their root system' 
really isn't enough to get out of doing the necessary 
legwork because there are a whole range of living 
languages out there that don't belong to the i-e group 
that Isaac could use to make comparisons with that do 
still have their root system in tact.

I have severe doubts that Isaac will be able to prove 
his work linguistically though I wish him the best. The 
reason I have such great doubts is because of the 
evident meaningless phonetic training stage which 
exists in all languages as the range of possible 
syllables is taught to the infant for later combination 
into meaningful words. In order to prove his theory, 
Isaac would need to find a culture where this stage of 
phonetic training was accompanied by meaning. As it 
stands, all psycholinguistic research I have seen seems 
to indicate that the human brain is hard wired to go 
through this stage of meaningless phonetic training and 
such presents a massive obstacle to Isaac's theory 
being taken seriously on any serious linguistic level.

James Christian Read
BSc Computer Science (thesis: concept driven machine translation using the Aleppo codex)


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