science of us

‘Frumbled’ and Other Good Reasons to Make Up Words

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When I was a kid I was obsessed with the Hot Dog Problem: what if hot dogs taste different to you than they do to me, and that’s why you love them, and I find them disgusting? You could substitute in any number of foods here, but I chose hot dogs because people who liked them really liked them, and the people who hated them (me) really hated them. I knew, obviously, that personal taste is subjective, but what if the hot dog itself tasted different, person to person, and I would never get to experience the other side of it, because I have only the one mouth? What if, in some mouths, hot dogs taste incredible, and I will never know that taste? Sometimes I still worry about this.

Anyway,  I was reminded of the Hot Dog Problem by this Scientific American piece, in which the author describes a linguistic relativity hypothesis known as “the Russian Blues,” so named because the Russian language has two separate words for “blue,” while English has just the one. The question, then, is this: do people who speak Russian perceive two distinct blues simply because they have two different words for it (goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blue), while English speakers see just one because we have only one word for it? In a 2007 experiment, researchers asked Russian-speaking subjects to quickly determine whether two shades of blue presented on a screen were different colors or the same. They found that subjects could make that distinction most quickly when the colors shown were goluboy and siniy, rather than two shades of goluboy or two shades of siniy. English speakers, on the other hand, had no advantage in any of these conditions.

More recently, a group of researchers ran a similar test on Greek speakers (who categorize light blue and dark blue as two different colors rather than variations on the same, similarly to Russian speakers) and German speakers (who, like English speakers,  have just the one blue). In their experiment, researchers asked subjects to detect a dark blue triangle over a light blue background, and a dark blue triangle over a dark green background, and so on — the theory being that Greek speakers should distinguish between light and dark blue just as easily as they do between dark green and dark blue, as both pairs incorporate two distinct colors in their language. Their results matched that theory. Greek speakers (and later, in a replication of the study, Russian speakers) also distinguished more easily between light blue and dark blue than they did light green and dark green (the latter of which belong to just one category or word in both languages).

Do you feel like you’re losing your MIND? Now you know how I feel about the Hog Dog Problem.

What these studies suggest, then, is that having words for things makes it easier for us to talk about them; in the Scientific American piece, author Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris, a a psycholinguistics professor at Boston University, makes the comparison to Schadenfreude — a word many English speakers know the meaning of, but which we’re unlikely to utilize as regularly as a German speaker might. What else might we be missing out on, simply because we don’t have the vocabulary for it? Hate it as I might, this is why terms like “FOMO” are, generally speaking, a net positive: they help us express something we didn’t even know we felt. If having the word for something makes it easier to access, I plan to spend the rest of the day coming up for one that describes how I feel in that perfect period of time just after I’ve done all the laundry and before a single piece of worn clothing goes into my beautiful, empty hamper.

But the main thing the Russian blues and the Hot Dog Problem both remind me of, I think, is how strange it is to realize you can’t access someone else’s perceptions, really, even if they are described to you (because, even then, they are filtered through your perception of their perceptions. Gah!). To me, light blue and dark blue will always be variations on the same core color. To me, hot dogs will always taste bad, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. Truly humbling to think about. And a little frustrating. I’m… frumbled!!! Haha. It could work, I think.

Frumbled’ and Other Good Reasons to Make Up Words