Cibelli, Xu, Austerweil, Griffiths, & Regier (2016). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color.

Cibelli, E., Xu, Y., Austerweil, J. L., Griffiths, T. L., & Regier, T. (2016). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color. PLOS ONE, 11(7), e0158725.

“Kay and Kempton [7] interpret Whorf [2] as follows:

“‘Whorf [. . .] suggests that he conceives of experience as having two tiers: one, a kind of rock bottom, inescapable seeing-things-as-they-are (or at least as human beings cannot help but [page break] see them), and a second, in which [the specific structures of a given language] cause us to classify things in ways that could be otherwise (and are otherwise for speakers of a different language).'” (p 14-15)

“Kay and Kempton argue that color cognition involves an interaction between these two tiers. The existence of a universal groundwork for color cognition helps to explain why there are constraints on color naming systems across languages [3–5, 37]. At the same time, Kay and Kempton acknowledge a role for the language-specific tier in cognition, such that ‘there do appear to be incursions of linguistic categorization into apparently nonlinguistic processes of thinking’ (p. 77). … Thus, this general approach, and our model as an instance of it, offer a possible resolution of one source of controversy surrounding the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: taking that hypothesis seriously need not entail a wholesale rejection of important universal components of human cognition.” (p 15)

Selected Notes

  • 1. Sapir E. The status of linguistics as a science. Language. 1929; 5:207–214. doi: 10.2307/409588
  • 2. Whorf B. L. Science and linguistics. In: Carroll JB, editor. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press; 1956. p. 207–219.
  • 3. Berlin B, Kay P. Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press; 1969.
  • 4. Kay P, Regier T. Resolving the question of color naming universals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2003; 100:9085–9089. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1532837100
  • 5. Kay P, Berlin B, Maffi L, Merrifield WR, Cook R. The World Color Survey. CSLI Publications; 2009.
  • 7. Kay P, Kempton W. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist. 1984; 86:65–79. doi: 10.1525/aa.1984.86.1.02a00050
  • 37. Regier T, Kay P, Khetarpal N. Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2007; 104:1436–1441. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0610341104
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