Re: Meaning generation

Scott DeLancey (
Wed, 23 Jul 1997 10:30:03 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Wed, 23 Jul 1997 10:30:03 -0700 (PDT)
From: Scott DeLancey <>
Subject: Re: Meaning generation
In-Reply-To: <>

On Tue, 22 Jul 1997, Mark Mills wrote:

> For example, there have been linguistic studies of how people name
> colors. For instance, every culture seems to have a term for 'red.'

Not quite true, as Bill Benzon has just noted. But your main point
is almost true:

> >From what I've read, there is a remarkable similarity between color
> systems. In most languages, the end of 'red' and the start of 'orange'
> is in about the same place. The Hopi have an intermediate term between
> orange and red.

It's not the boundaries of the field but the center that holds across
languages--i.e. for every language that has a word for 'red' (or any
of the other primary colors) the focal point of the field, the "best
exemplar" of the concept, is roughly the same. The outer boundaries
will differ depending on how many color terms the language has, i.e.
how finely divided the color space is.

> I suspect the similarity of linguistic structure to color reflects
> inherent biology, both in the eye and in the brain. 'Red' has meaning
> outside its experiential impact.

Right. That is, the "meanings" of the basic color terms are built
into the perceptual system (see e.g. Kay & McDaniel, "The Linguistic
Significance of the Meanings of Basic Color Terms", Language 54.3

> One might be tempted to call this 'emotional' response and there are a

Why "emotional"?

> lot of them, but the same mechanism was demonstrated by the Helen Keller
> story. I'm proposing that we are born with an apriori understanding of
> our experiences, one that constantly builds upon itself at least to
> adulthood in all mammals and past adulthood in humans.

As your example of colors and color terms illustrates, we are indeed born
with some "innate knowledge" or "a priori understanding". And the
question of just how much and how detailed this innate knowledge is is a
major issue in all the cognitive sciences. But you seem to be attributing
more innate knowledge than I think is plausible:

> Do we have an apriori knowledge of the 'water element?' I suspect we
> do. It would be something like our apriori knowledge of 'red.' We
> inherently respond to it as a distinct aspect of our experiences.

I have no problem supposing that the concept of 'wet' is inbuilt in
more-or-less the same sense as color response--that is, it's one of the
sensations that the sensory nerves in the skin have a specific, wired-in
response to. But from this to a concept of 'water' is a jump, and this
certainly isn't the only possible path to the concept.

> Developmental psychology tells us that children learn in a specific set
> of stages. My point is that these stages are a reflection of our
> inherent knowledge structure and this inherent structure is memetic.

Now, here's where I have a real problem, but I can't tell for sure
if our disagreement is substantive or just terminological. Let us
stipulate that every human being (absent color blindness or other
pathology) has a visual system that responds strongly to a particular
wavelength/saturation of light, the one at the center of the field
that English labels _red_, Chinese _hung_, etc. I don't see anyplace
here where the concept of "meme" is relevant. If all humans respond
equivalently to a particular stimulus because that's how they are
built, this is still squarely in the realm of genetics, not memetics.
Only when people start *naming* this color, subdividing the color
space into labelled subfields, into a system which other individuals
can then acquire, is there anything memetic going on.

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA

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