The search for words

Spring 2015

Cassandra Elphinstone

Schulich Leader at University of British Columbia

That which cannot be put into words we usually call indescribable. What we cannot describe or define in our minds becomes very difficult to notice and remember. During this term I heard a fascinating talk on the radio concerning colour and how we perceive it. Some years ago, an historian was going through Greek literature and noticed that the colour blue was never mentioned. After considerable research, he concluded that the ancient Greeks must have been colour blind. Needless to say, his conclusion was met with disbelief. The lack of the word blue, however, occurred not only in Greek literature but in a lot of historical texts. Only the Egyptians had defined a word for blue. The current theory is that most cultures rarely used blue in art or design so the colour went unnoticed and no word for it was used. A modern study decided to investigate this with a tribe in Africa. This tribe also had no word for blue but multiple words for green. The members of this tribe could not differentiate blue and green but could see difference in greens that most North Americans cannot identify. They were effectively blind to the colour blue. In a way, the original researcher was correct. Without the word, the people were effectively blind to the colour. I was shocked by this. What “greens” was I missing in the world? This reminded me of a book I read in elementary school called “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. I started to think more about how words and definitions affect what we notice.  

In a strange sense, words or definitions let us remember things or see things in a certain way. What would we see if we did not have any words for colours? What are we missing in the world as a result of having no words to describe what we experience? In an abstract, broad sense, mathematics and science are successful because they let us create ‘words’ to describe our world.  We search to define what we initially have no ‘word’ for. Newton for example realized all objects fall downwards at the same rate. He defined a law of gravity that then allowed us to “notice” this surprising effect. This changed the way the educated population sees an object fall. Science defines “words” almost unknowingly by applying the scientific method that we all learn and know so well. Mathematics similarly uses axioms and proofs to enter the unknown and allow us to notice new ideas.

For me, there are many experiences I am sure I have ‘forgotten’ or never even noticed as a result of having no way to define or remember them. Sometimes slight memories of these experiences are triggered or their edges defined by something I learn. I have found that mathematics most often triggers this odd occurrence. This term I was able to more clearly define one of my main life goals. I want to consciously search for these new ‘words’ and understand how they occur. Perhaps by simply knowing that science is creating these “words” will help us understand something fundamental about science itself. I know there is a lot we are completely unaware of. We unknowingly experience aspects of the world we cannot define and so they go unnoticed. I want to learn how to define the unknown.