Saturday, January 05, 2008

Colour vision and language shift

In a brief Edge article (see LH), Lera Boroditsky makes the thought-provoking remark - regarding perception of colours - that “It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.” If this is so, what happens when pretty much every speaker of a given language is also fluently bilingual in another one which divides up the spectrum (or indeed the world) differently - as has been the case here in Tabelbala for at least two generations? As it happens, some of my recent work here points to an answer.

I've recently been examining the colour system of Kwarandjie, trying out the second half of the Berlin and Kay tests (focus identification) with a number of speakers (well, 13 so far.) Of course, like all speakers of Kwarandjie, they are bilingual in Algerian Arabic; in fact, many of the speakers tested speak Arabic better than Kwarandjie. The colours they see turn out to be remarkably consistent, with more or less the same foci from speaker to speaker: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (as well as some secondary colours, most commonly pink (Arabic wəṛdi or, in reference to a darker shade, ħənnawi), that are less widely agreed on.) However, the words used to refer to “green” and “blue” show significant variation. For some speakers, zəgzəg means “blue” and “green” is (Arabic) xḍəṛ; for others, zəgzəg means “green”, and “blue” is (Arabic) ẓərrig!

It doesn't require too much speculation to think up a scenario to explain this. A few generations back, Kwarandjie must have had a five-colour system, featuring (like Japanese aoi, for example) a colour zəgzəg which covered both green and blue, whose focus was somewhere between the two. As speakers grew more fluent in Arabic, this focus split; they came to see both green and blue. Depending on whether they more frequently heard older speakers refer to, for example, plants or the sky as zəgzəg, they decided it meant one colour or the other, and gave the other colour an Arabic name; but different choices were made in different families. In the coming weeks I hope to gather more evidence on the issue - in particular, to learn whether even older speakers than those examined see a single colour grue or not.