Languages are extremely diverse, but they are not arbitrary. Behind the bewildering, contradictory ways in which different tongues conceptualise the world, we can sometimes discern order. Linguists have traditionally assumed that this reflects the hardwired linguistic aptitude of the human brain. Yet recent scientific studies propose that language “universals” aren’t simply prescribed by genes but that they arise from the interaction between the biology of human perception and the bustle, exchange and negotiation of human culture.

Language has a logical job to do—to convey information—and yet it is riddled with irrationality: irregular verbs, random genders, silent vowels, ambiguous homophones. You’d think languages would evolve towards an optimal state of concision, but instead they accumulate quirks that hinder learning, not only for foreigners but also for native speakers.

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A significant success was recently claimed by an Italian group of researchers led by Vittorio Loreto, a physicist at the University of Rome—La Sapienza. They looked at the favourite example among linguists of how language labels the objective world: the naming of colours.

When early anthropologists began to study non-western languages in the 19th century, particularly those of pre-literate “savages,” they discovered that the familiar European colour terms of red, yellow, blue, green and so on are not as natural as they may seem. Some indigenous people have far fewer colour terms. Many get by with just three or four, so that, for example, “red” could refer to anything from green to orange, while blue, purple and black are all lumped together as types of black.

(…)But the conclusions of Loreto and colleagues fit with a third possibility: the “culturist” view, which says that shared communication is needed to help organise category formation, so that categories and language co-evolve in an interaction between biological predisposition and culture. In other words, the starting point for colour terms is not some inevitably distinct block of the spectrum, but neither do we just divide up the spectrum any old how, because the human eye has different sensitivity to different parts of it. Given this, we have to arrive at some consensus, not just on which label to use, but on what is being labelled.

 

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