Helping kids learn colour names

July 20, 2011

Melody Dye has a very interesting article in Scientific American on why it’s so difficult for kids to learn words for colours, and how it can be made easier for them:

psychologists have found that even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the other things that children at that age can do

Different cultures divide the colour spectrum differently – sometimes subtly so, sometimes drastically. This means that learning colour terms requires children to learn not just the words but the particular colour map that obtains in their culture. And since colours are ubiquitous and blend into one another, it naturally takes a while to sort it all out.

This process might be particularly tricky in English because

we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”

Dye explains why this matters: it has to do with how our attention works. Understanding this means we can help children learn colours more quickly by adjusting our syntax slightly in a way that will direct their attention in a particular way.

The article is well worth reading, and there are many links for the curious. [Edit: It was published about a year ago, so some of you will have already read it. Somehow I saw it only recently.]

Update: The same principle also applies to number learning.

Book review: Through the Language Glass

June 21, 2011

Whether and how our languages shape our thoughts, perceptions and worldviews is a perennially vexed subject. (For starters, what do we mean by shape and thoughts?) Known as linguistic relativity or the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the nature and extent of this influence have proved difficult to establish. Traditionally, some philosophers made grandiose claims about it, but the currency of such claims plummeted in the 20th century.

Linguist Guy Deutscher, in a NYT Magazine article titled ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think?’ says that with ‘Science and Linguistics‘ (PDF), Benjamin Whorf ‘seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think’. I don’t think Whorf deserves so much responsibility, or blame, for whole-generational seduction,* but here’s a pertinent excerpt from his influential essay:

Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds.

Despite linguistic relativity’s fall from academic favour, it persists – thrives, even – in the popular imagination. In his new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher looks at how valid it really is and what conclusions may be drawn about it. Sifting through a weight of data and theories, he describes several ways in which a weak form of linguistic relativity seems to obtain – colour perception, gender, and spatial orientation – and makes the case that language can influence our thoughts and thought patterns not radically, but more significantly than is sometimes acknowledged.

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Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?

May 21, 2011

“There is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

A recurring idea in popular discussions of languages – usually exotic or minority ones – is that they have “no word for X”, where X could be hello, tomorrow, burger, ten, accountability, robin, and so on. Sometimes it’s sheer fantasy, sometimes the language simply has (or has had) no need for the word (robins in the Arctic?), and sometimes it has other ways of conveying the idea – such as a longer phrase, a different kind of metaphor, or another syntactic category.

The point is, it’s not as though there’s a nagging word-shaped gap there that makes it difficult for speakers of a language to communicate with one another, to make sufficient sense of their experiences, and to get through the day without falling apart. If there’s a need for a word, a word will arise.

Irish has no word for yes, but this linguistic lacuna does not stop Irish speakers from agreeing, accepting, assenting, and shouting things in bed. Other idioms and grammatical markers are used instead. The lack of a word for something doesn’t imply the lack of a concept for it, yet this illogical extrapolation is repeatedly made, perhaps for reasons of naïveté, sensationalism, or romanticism, e.g., the appeal of a culture with no word for lying, and other spins on the “noble savage” myth.

The no-word-for-X trope belongs to the more general faddish idea of a language or culture having N words for X, where N is, as Mark Liberman writes, “either zero or some number viewed as excessively large”; he goes on to discuss “the mind-clouding power of this rhetorical device”. It certainly seems to exert a strong and sometimes stupefying effect on people.

Many of us speak multiple languages, or we did once, or we know people who do, so occasional interlinguistic imprecision is a familiar notion. But when we encounter a language that supposedly has no word for Something Very Fundamental, some concept we assume to be universal, we are beguiled. What do they think like, we wonder, these exotic creatures who have no word for X. We want to be not so much a fly on the wall as a homunculus in the brain of someone very different from us – to test drive their mind for a while.

Yesterday the BBC announced that the Amondawa language “has no word for ‘time’”. The headline declares, rather boldly: “Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says”, but a more accurate description might be that it appears to lack an abstract term for time. The report follows a paper published in Language and Cognition titled “When Time is not Space: The social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture.” It’s available here [PDF].*

One of the authors, Chris Sinha, Professor of Psychology of Language at the University of Portsmouth, anticipates romantic misinterpretations when he stresses that the researchers are “really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’”. Time, after all, is inescapable; in the words of science fiction writer Ray Cummings, it’s “what keeps everything from happening at once”. Sinha’s comment echoes a point made in the paper’s discussion:

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Dictionary of faded metaphors

May 4, 2011

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written some articles about metaphorical English for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. This is a round-up of those articles, along with related links and additional thoughts. All of Macmillan’s blog posts, links and other resources on metaphorical English are collected on this page.

In Vorschule der Ästhetik (Pre-School of Aesthetics, 1804), philosopher Jean Paul wrote that every language was ‘ein Wörterbuch erblasseter Metaphern’: a dictionary of faded metaphors, or metaphors turned pale. Metaphors will fade – we can’t help that – but by paying heed to their histories and how we use them, we can perhaps avoid blanching them altogether. In any case, we keep coming up with new ones. We can’t help that, either.

Metaphors are commonly thought of as similes, analogies and so on, but single words can be metaphorical too. In ‘Depending on metaphor‘, I point out that although the current use of depend is chiefly abstract, its original meaning was ‘hang down’, as in pendulum. So its meaning has slid from physical reliance to figurative reliance. Semantic drift from physical to figurative is a routine linguistic pattern:

Metaphors tend to be based on a key conceptual correspondence. This is one reason they’re so productive. We can retain a metaphor’s central idea, but extend it and play with it and still be understood even as we conjure up unprecedented descriptions. Our natural creativity with language gives words whole constellations of related meanings. . . . Abstraction has become so commonplace in our thoughts and words that we tend to ignore what lies beneath it. Familiarity has fostered invisibility. [more]

Metaphorical language has come in for some rough judgement from philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. Was his tongue (figuratively) in his cheek when he relied on metaphors in order to decry them? It doesn’t seem so. Nowadays we give them more credit. My next article, ‘For I met a metaphor‘, refers to several of Macmillan Dictionary’s ‘metaphor boxes’, written by lexicographer Rosamund Moon, which offer examples of familiar metaphors arranged systematically:

An organisation is like a body. A conversation is like a journey. . . . Gaining knowledge is like navigating, understanding is like seeing, and an opinion is like a view. . . . Reading the metaphors Rosamund has collected, we find them intuitively true because they’re intimately tied to how we conceptualise. We use metaphors to handle complex or abstract ideas by showing their similarity to simpler or more concrete or familiar things. Many metaphors originate in our impressions of our bodies and their interaction with the physical world. They are integral to how we make sense of our experiences. [more]

Illustration by Fritz Kahn

This is something I’ve written about here before: many metaphors are rooted in how we sense, experience, and orient in our environments. On Twitter I read a charming example of the body-as-container metaphor that stayed with me for weeks until I just had to write about it, noting that when a novel metaphor appears – in this instance from a child – it suddenly shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.

The body as a container is a good example of how metaphors assemble around core ideas and correspondences that are often basically physical or biological. In ‘Dirty tricks and honest metaphors‘, I discuss how the language we use to talk about honesty and dishonesty springs logically from certain key concepts. For example, we characterise dishonesty as dark, dirty, crooked, down, covered and closed:

Metaphor can be a subtle way of handling truth – hence the quote with which I began my previous article: ‘the defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real’ [Sarah Kane, 4:48 Psychosis]. Even criminals who live in bright airy penthouses operate underground in the black market. They are called snakes and rats, slithering and scurrying in the dirt instead of being upstanding citizens. A detective in Scarface (1932) describes gangsters as ‘crawling lice’, which evokes this low plane and also hints at the connections between hygiene, disgust, and morality – connections we make in our minds and express in our metaphors. [more]

Science and philosophy are full of models and metaphors, since they involve devising useful representations of phenomena. The trouble is that we forget they are only models, based on human symbols and perceptions: recall the prolonged dispute over whether light is composed of waves or particles.* Metaphor in the form of allegory is central to many myths, fairy tales, and religious parables. Embedding and extending metaphors in stories gives us more room to convey psychological, social, and moral instruction.

Nietzsche wrote that we are all greater artists than we realise. This is true in several ways. To rephrase one of them: perception is creation. In perceiving the world then describing it to ourselves and to one another, we add lines and form, measuring, shaping, and connecting. Doing so creatively is second nature to us. Evolving to manipulate symbols, our minds also evolved to be manipulated by them. Hence the power of poetic language and the potency of a good metaphor.


* Answer: Both. Either. It depends on how you look at it. It’s complicated.

Containers of jokes and metaphors

February 14, 2011

The world is emblematic (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

On Twitter I follow an account called preschoolgems, which posts some of the things spoken by children attending a pre-school where, presumably, the account holder works. For instance:

I was born on a space needle.”
A clock is a house for time.”
Your eyes look extra magical today.”
I keep trying to go off in the distance.”
There’s a wolf in my tummy and a porcupine in my bum.”
Once, a long time ago, I had the whole world, and then I lost it.”
What was the first word ever?”
Plants are more important than games.”

You get the idea. Some are amusing but unremarkable, others irresistible; most are pretty charming, fresh, and effortlessly imaginative.

A few weeks ago I read the following gem: “One day I will tell the last of my jokes and then I will have to fill my body up with jokes again.”

As well as amusing me, it reminded me of a book I’d recently read: George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The book covers some of the same ground as the better-known Metaphors We Live By, a shorter work Lakoff co-wrote with the philosopher Mark Johnson. Both books make the case that our conceptual and linguistic systems are intrinsically and deeply metaphorical.

Metaphors are vital for the communication of ideas, especially complex or abstract ones, e.g., covers some of the same ground. Countless everyday metaphors are rooted in how we physically sense, experience, and orient in our environments. A familiar example of this is how we conceptualise our bodies as three-dimensional containers – vessels with boundaries through which things pass in and out.

Many metaphors are based on this simple concept. One of the ways we understand and talk about emotions is as substances, often fluids, in these containers. When we are sad we feel empty inside. Recovering, we are filled with relief, and may even brim with joy. If we lose our temper we cannot contain our anger; we need to get it out of our system. The language of eating evokes the analogy closely: when we overeat, we are stuffed, fit to burst, with no room for more.

We rely automatically on such expressions. The associations that inspired them are effectively invisible, integral to the flows of speech and thought – inevitably, given their ubiquity. Metaphor is a way for us to relate to (grasp) abstract ideas in terms of simpler, more concrete ones; it is pervasive in, and indispensable to, our language and our mental activity.

So when a novel example appears – from a child, say – suddenly and clearly it shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.

Emerson, in his famous essay Nature (1836), remarked on our ancient habit of using words we have “borrowed from some material appearance”; he said this tendency “may be daily observed in children . . . As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry”. The child I quoted might run out of jokes now and then, but not of poetic metaphors.

The red pen effect

June 22, 2010

When I began freelance editing, I decided to track changes in blue rather than the default red. I did this not just to avoid red’s overtones of aggressive nitpicking, but because blue seemed better suited to my temperament and editing style — even and light, respectively, unless stricter handling is required. Blue is a more neutral colour, and once I adopted it there was never a question of reverting, though what colours appear on a client’s computer is beyond my control.

There’s more at play here than aesthetics and personal preference. A recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that red pens prime us to be more critical. In “The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of grading standards” (PDF; abstract), authors Abraham Rutchick, Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris summarise the research done on error perception and the colour red, before describing how they went about exploring red-pen “object priming”. “A small but growing body of research”, they report,

has shown that physical objects and environments can also influence cognition and behavior. For instance, the presence of guns can intensify aggression . . . and merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance. . . . in essence, any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible.

This makes a lot of intuitive sense, but it’s important to test these ideas under controlled conditions in order to remove or reduce bias. “Because the color red is implicitly associated with avoidance and failure,” they note, “and red pens specifically have long been associated with errors, we propose that exposure to a red pen activates the concepts of errors, poor performance, and evaluative harshness.” They conducted three well-conceived experiments to examine these effects, and the results were telling:

people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens. . . . the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers’] evaluations.


exposure to a red pen in the context of grading a paper can influence behavior, likely without the awareness of the person being influenced

The researchers cite various studies that provide evidence of an automatic cognitive link between red and failure. The connection is subtle, and context is everything; the effect of red might be very different if one is selling toothpaste or designing toys. One study suggests that “exposure to red facilitates effective performance of tasks that demand vigilance, attention, and a focus on detail”. No wonder it’s the default in editing. “The pen is mightier than the word”, of course, is far from the final word on the matter:

there are other possibilities. For example, red pens could influence levels of testosterone and aggression, or exposure to the color could activate an avoidance orientation, leading evaluators to be more cautious and critical.

As the authors acknowledge, carrying out similar studies — such as in cultures where the red-pen–error association doesn’t exist — would help resolve such uncertainties.


In the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago, Jan Freeman wrote about the implications of this research with characteristic tolerance and good sense. “The zero-tolerance legions,” she observed,

never question the assumption that correcting pupils’ language mistakes will help them to write better. . . . It’s only natural to cherish a few language peeves. But if your red-pen reflex is overactive, you might ask yourself — is all that indignation doing you, or the world, any good?

She draws attention to a radio interview with Ben Zimmer, where a commenter threatens to switch off if he — I think it’s a he — hears Ben say basically or essentially even once. (See my previous post about basically-fulmination.) Jan’s excellent language blog, Throw Grammar from the Train, is subtitled “Notes from a recovering nitpicker”. You can probably tell why I like it so much.

My interest in peevology owes something to my former life as a part-time peever; my prescriptivist tendencies were based less on reason and evidence than presumption. Editing requires a measure of fussiness and pedantry, but only inasmuch as it serves the text and stems from sound, well-informed judgement.



Returning to pen colours, Mighty Red Pen (whose blog I also enjoy, despite our relative chromo-contrariety) wrote that when she edited her college paper, they had “a hierarchy of pen colours”, with the editor in chief using a privileged purple. Mark Allen revealed in a comment that he tends to “reach for the blue felt-tip over the red if they’re lying next to each other”, but feels that he may be doing the client a disservice if he doesn’t “grab the ruthless red”. MRP again:

At one job I had, I remember clearly a conversation with my new boss about the color pens I wanted. She suggested I consider ordering purple or green pens because she had heard that people tend to be intimidated by red pens.

I think the intimidation is particularly pointed if the corrections are numerous. It is, to a degree, independent of colour. This is why I sometimes reassure clients, if I’ve marked their text heavily, that many of the changes are minor and cosmetic — which they generally are — and that their writing isn’t as error-laden as it might initially appear to be. Such reassurance can be especially welcome if it’s the first time a writer has submitted material to an editor.

In a recent comment, I wrote that my own writing was informed by reading great and careful writers, and by following sensible guidance from authorities throughout history: this applies to editing too. The realm of English usage is not so much a chequerboard of right and wrong as a broad and complex terrain of shifting suitability. (There’s right and wrong too, of course.) I learned this gradually, and have gained experience enough to apply it; children and under-confident writers often haven’t, and unnecessary fault-finding from an unforgiving red pen can be a tough blow to their confidence.

The red pen is a powerful tool. Use it gently.

[Pencils from Wikimedia Commons; red and blue pills from The Matrix]

A typo more mysterious that most

October 21, 2009

I came across the following passage in a book I was reading this morning:

typo in 'Does God Play Dice - The New Mathematics of Chaos'

Did you notice the typo? (And in the title?) Typing that for than is a very common slip. It appears in all sorts of prose, edited and unedited. It appears occasionally in my own writing before I fix it. If you Google ‘bigger that’, ‘more common that’, etc., and ignore the false positives, you’ll get a hint of the extent of this mistake. Anecdotal evidence further suggests its prevalence.

For such a widespread and apparently simple typo, its cause is rather mysterious. It’s not like typing my name as Stab or Stabn, which I often do, and which is a simple misstroke resulting from the adjacency of B and N on a QWERTY keyboard and the mechanical imprecision of my typing. T and N are not adjacent, and that-for-than is not an error of omission, duplication, transposition, or repetition. Nor do that and than overlap in meaning. So whence this ubiquitous typo?

[Click for more discussion and a photo of a chimpanzee]