April 13, 2007

Pirahã color terms

My copy of the latest New Yorker arrived yesterday, containing John Colapinto's article on Dan Everrett's work with the Pirahã, which Mark reported on admiringly several days ago. I agree with Mark's overall evaluation of this piece of linguistic journalism, but I should point out two factual errors in the small part of the content about which I am independently in possession of the facts.

The point at issue is Everett's claim that the Pirahã don't have any consistently employed color terms and the conflicting evidence from the data gathered by Steve Sheldon for the World Color Survey that they do. Colapinto reports that Sheldon's data were "duly enshrined in Berlin and Kay's book ‘Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution’ (1969)." Colapinto also reports that Sheldon gathered these data "in the late sixties." The World Color Survey was only begun in the mid-seventies, largely in reaction to published challenges to the conclusions of Basic Color Terms, so Sheldon's data could not have appeared in Basic Color Terms and in fact did not. Nor could they have been gathered in the late sixties, which they weren't. (Moreover, they have never been published anywhere, although they have been made availalable privately to several scholars, including Dan Everett.)

Colapinto is doubtless correct on the main issue, though, that now, after recent conversations with Everett, Sheldon distrusts the validity of his data, fearing that they display spurious homogeneity because he did not succeed in his efforts to interview each participant in isolation. Colapinto accurately reports this recent change in Sheldon's evaluation of his own data.

The way things stand now on the issue of whether the Pirahã have true color terms is that we don't know. Everett is going to carefully run the WCS data-gathering procedure on his next trip to the Pirahã, being certain that each participant is interviewed out of the presence of others. When that work is done, we'll know whether the Pirahã have true color terms.

Colapinto also fails to mention an observation I made regarding the significance of Dan's claim, assuming it is in fact correct. Of course, Colapinto was under no obligation to do so, but since I think it's relevant to the issue of Pirahã having, or not having color terms, I'll summarize it briefly. Everett argues that lack of color terms is one aspect of Pirahã culture's rejection of all abstraction and insistence on only considering worthy of cogitation or communication the here-and-now. I think a strong case can be made, however, that color terms are not at all abstract, but in fact quite concrete. First, color is the only visual modality for which we have dedicated peripheral (specifically retinal) receptors, the cones. Secondly, there is strong evidence that human color discrimination and color matching are common properties of all Old World primates, and the sparse evidence we have on cross-species color categorization uniformly indicates pan-catarrhine homogenity here as well. Everett presents no argument WHY we should consider color terms to be abstract, so it could turn out ironically that finding the Pirahã really have color terms could bolster his argument about strictly here-and-now thought, culture and language among the Pirahã.

[Update: The principal reference for the claim "that human color discrimination and color matching are common properties of all Old World primates," is De Valois, Russell L., H.C. Morgan, M.C. Polson, W.R. Mead and E.M. Hull (1974) Psychophysical studies of monkey vision-I. Macaque luminosity and color vision tests. Vision Research 14: 53-67. For cross-catarrhine homogeneity in color categorization, see Essok, S. M. (1977) Color perception and color classification. In D.M. Rumbaugh, Ed., Language Learning by a Chimpanzee. New York, San Francisco, London: Academic Press; Matsuzawa, T. (1985) Colour naming and classification in a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Human Evolution 14: 283-291; and Sandell, J.H., Gross, C.G., and Bornstein, M.H. (1979) Color categories in macaques. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 93: 626-635.

Hat tip to Edith Maxwell for pointing out that "catarrhine" was mispelled "caterrhine." She was courteous enough to suppose it was a "simple typo," but it wasn't. A minor cautionary tale for bloggers: I had checked my guesswork mispelling "caterrhine" by googling it. The result was a page of official-looking sources with that spelling, preceded by the query, "Did you mean: Catherine?" I concluded that "caterrhine" was ok. What I failed to notice was that this search received only seven hits, whereas the search I did for "catarrhine" after reading Edith's email yielded over 100k. ]

[Dan Everett writes:

Paul is absolutely correct in what he says about Pirahã color terms. He very kindly provided me with a new set of experimental materials, sitting on my dining room table at present, and I will be re-running the experiments. I am not sure where the NYr got the dates on Sheldon's work.

I think that the experience of color is concrete but that the labeling of it is not, following some work by John Lyons and others. However, if Pirahã turns out to have color terms, I shall certainly let people know and maybe be convinced that Paul is correct that this bolsters my case. In any case, Paul and Brent Berlin discussed all of this with me for hours and have been extremely helpful in improving my understanding of the issues.


Posted by Paul Kay at April 13, 2007 08:32 AM