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Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis color test
Here are extracts from the message that was sent to the Lojban list on
2 Mar 1994 regarding the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis color test. Note the
second and last paragraphs, especially.
Willett Kempton said:
I'm a coauthor of the Kay and Kempton study ... ... our primary
experiment was simple: Present three color chips (call them A, B,
C) to speakers of two languages, such that colors A and B are
slightly more different in terms of (universal) human visual
discriminability, whereas B and C have a linguistic boundary
separating them in one language (English) but not the other
(Tarahumara, a Uto-Aztecan language). As noted earlier, the
English speakers chose C as most different, whereas the Tarahumara
chose A or split evenly (there were actually eight chips and four
sets of relevant triads).
I'll add a couple of points of interest ... First, as the speaker
of a language subject to this perceptual effect, I would like to
report that it is dramatic, even shocking. I administered the
tests to informants in Chihuahua. I was so bewildered by their
responses that I had trouble continuing the first few tests, and I
had no idea whether or not they were answering randomly. In
subsequent analysis it was clear that they were answering exactly
as would be predicted by human visual discriminability, but quite
unlike the English informants.
An informal, and unreported, check of our results was more
subjective: I showed some of the crucial triads to other English
speakers, including some who had major commitments in print to not
finding Whorfian effects for color ... All reported seeing the
same effects. ...
Our second experiment... difficult to use the lexical categories.
And we got visual discrimination-based results, even from English
speakers. So there are ways to overcome our linguistic blinders.
(Which we knew already, ...
I didn't expect to find this. ... I believed the literature
... The experiment was going to be dropped from the field research,
saved by a conversation at a wine party with a "naive" sociologist
(Paul Attewell) who had read Whorf but not the later refutations.
I'll email the full message to anyone who asks; if more than a few
ask, I'll post the whole to the list, but I'm trying to save virtual
Robert J. Chassell email@example.com
25 Rattlesnake Mountain Road firstname.lastname@example.org
Stockbridge, MA 01262-0693 USA (413) 298-4725