PAUL KAY: IS LANGUAGE A STRAITJACKET?
Would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet? Do our words shape our thoughts, so that "we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages," as the linguist Benjamin L. Whorf asserted half a century ago? Is language a straitjacket?
Perhaps to some extent, allows Paul Kay, 69, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. Those are hardly fighting words, and Kay, dressed in fuzzy shoes and a fuzzy sweater, his feet up on his desk, doesn't seem a pugnacious fellow. Yet he and his former colleague, Brent Berlin (now at the University of Georgia), have been at the center of a 35-year running debate concerning Whorf's hypothesis, called linguistic relativity. "Our work has been interpreted by some people as undermining linguistic relativity, but it applies only to a very restricted domain: color," Kay remarks.
This article was originally published with the title Draining the Language out of Color.