[b-hebrew] Colors and Language

JAMES CHRISTIAN READ JCR128 at student.anglia.ac.uk
Tue Aug 21 12:44:23 EDT 2007


Hi Pete,

yes! Recursion is Chomsky's latest big thing which he 
loves to harp on about. For me there is no great surprise 
to discover a language that does not exhibit recursion 
in this way. In fact, even in English, sentences of such 
type only occur late in the linguistic development of a 
child and are quite complex in nature both for the 
listener and for the speaker as they employ the use of 
mental variables in order for communication to be 
possible.

The Piraha speech is, in a way, superior, as it is both 
less mentally taxing for the speaker and for the 
hearer as it requires no such use of mental variables 
to reach the end of the sentence. Such speech is in no 
way, for me, a sign of cognitive inferiority and as 
observered by Everette, a Piraha child born in the 
states would be just as genetically capable of 
mastering English (probably one of the grammatically 
poorer languages) than any other child, or even 
Ukrainian, Polish or Russian (better examples in my 
mind).

What would make the Piraha cognitively inferior would 
be the inability to distinguish colour. The inability 
to distinguish colour in such an environment would 
have most likely led to the tribe's extinction a very 
long time ago. Their lack of a standardised system for 
colour expression does not detract from their ability 
to express just as many colours (if not more, think 
about it) as us.

But let's think about it for a while. Why would a 
hunter gatherer tribe need to speak about colour every 
day. The young learn about the local botany and zoology 
by hands on experience, being shown what can be eaten 
and what can kill you. Their cognitive systems make 
subconscious notes of colours of objects for later 
recognition but no particular need to communicate these 
colours is needed because all objects are referred to 
by concrete names. Contrast this with growing up in 
Western society where Granny only gives you a biscuit 
if you tell her your favourite colour and intellectual 
appraisal comes about for your ability to colour in 
the colouring book with its codes. Given such a massive
brainwashing into believing that understanding colour 
is essential to infant survival it is hardly surprising 
why we grow up believing that talking about colour is 
such a fundamental, everyday skill.

I too, have learned a number of languages by the very 
same monolingual method that Everette had to employ. 
The main difference being that my learning was by 
whereas Everette had no other point of entry to the 
language. And on a number of occasions I have reached 
one of those shocked conclusions that people X have no 
way of expressing concept Y only to find, in later 
experiences that earlier, that these conclusions had 
been prematurely drawn. Everette's new look at colour 
could be something worth waiting for.

Anyway, in summary, the points being made are:

1) They make cognitive colour distinctions just like 
everyone else.
2) They have the ability to understand descriptions 
with colour terms (no matter how rudimentary).
3) They have the ability to produce descriptions with 
colour terms.

In short, they are deficit in no way other than the 
lack of a standardised system which their culture proves 
to be unnecessary to their survival. Colour can still 
therefore be considered a language universal even if 
recursion can't. Their language is of great interest to 
me because while apparently deficit in a number of areas 
it preserves the most basic of cognitive abilites 

1) shape discrimination
2) colour discrimination
3) bigger/smaller discrimination

>From a cognitive scientist perspective. It's a pearl of 
a language.

James Christian Read
BSc Computer Science (thesis: concept driven machine translation using the Aleppo codex)
http://www.lamie.org/hebrew 
















































































n't. Their language is of great interest to 
me because while apparently deficit in a number of areas 
it preserves the most basic of cognitive abilites 

1) shape discrimination
2) colour discrimination
3) bigger/smaller discrimination






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