As the legend goes, when Christopher Columbus’s armada entered the Caribbean, the Native Americans were unable to see the ships clearly sailing right over the horizon because their brains could not process an image they had no knowledge of. The legend continues that it was not until the tribe chief was able to see the ships, after noticing the effect they had on the surrounding water, that he verbally explained what he saw to the others and the entire tribe was able to see the incoming fleet.

This legend may be hard to believe, but it's based on something scientists continue to investigate: Does the language we speak have a physical effect on how we view the world around us?

Grammar And Our Idea Of Action

A recent study, now published in Psychological Science, showed that the grammatical differences of English and German actually affect the ways speakers perceive a situation. For example, in the study German/English bilinguals were asked to watch a short non-verbal video of an individual completing an action and then describe what they saw. The videos were simple, showing scenes such as a woman walking toward a car or a man riding his bike to a supermarket.

The results showed that despite being shown the same videos, English and German descriptions of the actions consistently differed in the same manner. The German replies tended to describe both the actions and the goal of the scenario. For example, they would answer: “A woman is walking toward her car.” The English replies tended to only describe the action and leave out the goal, thus describing the same video as: “A woman is walking.”

The researchers involved in the study believe that the different replies are based on the differences in English and German grammar. This hypothesis seemed to uphold after the researchers found that as the bilinguals' understanding of the intricate grammar of their language increased, so did the similarity of their descriptions following the aforementioned pattern.

The team believes this lingual difference actually shaped the way individuals viewed the scenarios, with German speakers more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions and English speakers more focused on the action itself.

According to legend, the Native Americans could not see the ships until they were told of their existence. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Language And Your Sense Of Direction

A fascinating aspect of the Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr is that it exclusively uses cardinal directions to describe proximity. This means that instead of saying “can you move to your right?” or “there’s something behind you,” in Guugu Yimithirr you would be asked “to move a bit to your west” or “there’s something to your southeast,” The New York Times reported.

The lack of egocentric direction means that while English speakers view themselves as the center of their world and describe objects in relation to them, Guugu Yimithirr speakers are non-existent in their perception of the surrounding world.

This unique way of describing the world around them seems to have a physical effect, heightening both their sense of direction and their memory skills. According to a 1986 study, Aboriginal children performed higher than white Australian children on visual spatial memory tasks requiring memory for spatial location. The New York Times reported that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember the same reality differently than used. For example, while English speakers may recall matching hotel rooms on the opposite side of the hall to be identical in every way, Guugu Yimithirr speakers would recall the rooms as reversed, with everything from the position of the bed to the bathroom door as different.

Can You See A Color You Have No Word For?

Through their analysis of the literary works from Ancient Greek, Korean, Icelandic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Hindu, researchers have found one similarity: the salient lack of any use of the color blue. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the sea as “wine-dark,” and every ancient description of the heavens fails to mention what English speakers would describe as its most obvious characteristic: its blue coloring, Business Insider reported. The lack of describing the color blue is so widespread that some researchers have even questioned if humans were even able to see the color.

Without a word for blue the Himba people struggle to tell it apart from green. Photo courtesy of Vidipedia screenshot

While it may be too late to prove whether or not man could see the color blue thousands of years ago, researcher Jules Davidoff was able to find the Himba tribe in Namibia who did not have a word for blue in their present vernacular.

For the study, Davidoff presented the Himba people with a simple color blot test which consisted of 11 identical green colored squares and one bright blue square. Davidoff then asked the Himba people to choose the one square which stood out from the rest. He soon found that not having a word for the color blue significantly hindered the Himba people’s ability to physically see it. The majority of the Himba people could not pick out the blue square from the green squares, and those who could took a long time to do so.

While the Himba have no word for blue, they have much more words to describe shades of green than English. Davidoff found that when the tables were turned English speakers were nearly incapable of telling apart shades of green, a task which the Himba people had no difficulty completing. According to Davidoff, the results of his study reflect only one truth: The human eye cannot physically see a color that it does not have a word for.