Steven Pinker: The Language of Swearing
Ooh Mr. Pinker ooh
How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.
In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.
Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being –midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.
One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.
In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.
And it’s not just Japanese. There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In Vietnamese the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue. The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qīng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. In fact, Radiolab had a fascinating recent episode on color where they talked about how there was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!
I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.
because can be followed by a finite clause:I left him because [he sold my prize-winning armadillo].
It can be followed by a prepositional phrase:I left him because [of his unbearable stench].
But a non-standard usage is gaining wider and wider acceptance, namelybecause+noun (often a proper noun):I can’t come out tonight because Skyrim.
This isn’t a straight nonstandard equivalent to the other uses - it’s different. It means something like ‘I’m so busy being totally absorbed by X that I don’t need to explain further, and you should know about this because it’s a completely valid incredibly important thing to be doing’. This page is all posts that were tagged with #because Skyrim.
But has a similar use (taken from the same Tumblr page):Okay I’d totally love to read my dash and everything but Skyrim.
I like it.
I think the wug test is the cutest thing I came across when I took developmental/child psych
Let’s talk about Wugs, baby.
The t-shirt design will feature the “Thug Wug” designed by the lovely Erika, GSU Linguistics in IPA on the front and (as we will decide tomorrow) one of the following quotes on the back:
- Haters gonna hate, Plosives gonna stop
- Wug life
To get a shirt, you just need to attend a meeting!
Yes, this is a bribe because attendance has been terrible the semester, you guys.
There will be a meeting of the GSU Linguistic Society tomorrow! It will be held in the conference room of the AppLing/ESL department in 34 Peachtree. We don’t know what we’ll be doing quite yet, but you should come anyways. :x Also! Our shirts will be ordered and coming in within the next couple of weeks. I’m so excited!
There will be a meeting of the GSU Linguistic Society tomorrow morning at 11 in the AppLing department conference room— It’s on the 12th Floor of 34 Peachtree! We will be having a guest speaker! One of the PhD students is coming in to talk about her research! :D Also on the agenda: finalizing the t-shirt design.
Rumor has it there will be cookies.