Culture and Attribution

Greeks and Egyptians thought differently because the Greeks wrote from left to right and the Egyptians from right to left. Many years later, inspired by anthropologist Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956) theorized that the language people speak—the words, the rules, and so on—can influence the way they conceptualize the world. To illus- trate, he pointed to cultural variations in the use of words to represent reality. He noted that the Hanunoo of the Philippines have 92 different terms for rice, in contrast to the crude distinction North Americans make between “white rice” and “brown rice.” Similarly, while English

speakers have one word for snow, Eskimos have several words, which, Whorf argued, enables them to make distinctions that others may miss between “falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow—whatever the situation may be”

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As a result of many years of research, it is now clear that language and culture can influence the way people think about time, space, objects, and other aspects of the physical world around them. Consider our perceptions of color. The rainbow is a continuum of light varying smoothly between the shortest and lon- gest wavelengths of the visible spectrum. Yet when we look at it, we see distinct classes of color that correspond to “red,” “orange,” “yellow,” “green,” “blue,” and so on. Languages differ in the parts of the color spectrum that are named. In Papua New Guinea, where Berinmo speakers distinguish between green and brown (they single out a form of “khaki” as the color of dead leaves), an object reflecting light at 450 nanometers would be called green. Yet many English speak- ers, who distinguish between colors that cross the blue-green part of the spec- trum, might see that same object as blue.

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