:mindblown: a new reading of the Mettasutta that will change everything

Thanks!

Yes, I’ve been updating as I go and these will be reflected on the site in due course.

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The use of a single word for love will likely lead to a lack of discernment. A quote from the following study on colour illustrates the point.
ProgressInColour.pdf (213.1 KB)

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43627151_Colour_categories_and_category_acquisition_in_Himba_and_English

A series of cross-cultural studies of adult colour categorization have found consistent differences in a range of perceptual and memory tasks, systematically linked to the colour categories in each culture (Davidoff, Davies & Roberson 1999; Roberson, Davies & Davidoff 2000). Most recently, Roberson, Davidoff, Davies & Shapiro (2005) have shown that, even though two coding systems may appear to be superficially very similar, speakers of the two languages encode, remember and discriminate colour stimuli in different ways. Himba, a language spoken by a semi-nomadic, cattle-herding people in South West Africa, shows similarity in its number of linguistic categories for colour to Berinmo, the Papua New Guinean language previously studied by Roberson et al. (2000). Both languages have five basic colour categories, according to the criteria of Kay et al. (1991). However, Himba participants showed categorical perception only for their own linguistic categories and not for either the supposed universal categories, as occurring in English, or to those of the Berinmo language.

This shows that our choice of words affects our perceptions.

The paper goes on to say:

The tendency to group by similarity is pervasive, both across cultures and across cognitive
domains. Colour cognition is no exception to this and no culture / language has yet been reported that violates this principle by grouping together two areas of colour space (for example, yellow and blue) in a category that excludes the intermediate area (for example, green).1

It is plausible that, over time, a culture’s language drifts such that the classification of the colours spectrum also shifts. Given the evidence, this would mean that the perceptions of colour within that culture will shift over time as well. If boundaries between colours widen or narrow, a corresponding shift in perception will result.

I would say that the same pattern also applies to condensing multiple words such as kāma, pema and mettā into the single word of love. Doing so merges three distinct categories in the emotional spectrum In Pali (kāma, pema and mettā) into one continuous category in English (love). This would in time lead to confusion, the inability to distinguish between the original three and a general lack of discernment. Given the evidence at hand, using the word love as a translation for mettā seems like a bad idea.

Did you actually read the article in your link?

Far from supporting your claim, the author casts serious doubt upon it.

Looking for Himba color in Google Scholar, I find things like Rachel Adelson, “Hues and views: A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception”, American Psychological Association Monitor, 2/2005; Roberson et al., “Color categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis”, Cognitive Psychology 2005; Goldstein et al., “Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba”, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2008 — but none of these describe an experiment anything like the one shown in the 2011 BBC documentary, and discussed in various places since then.

The documentary names Serge Caparos as the experimenter, and we see him and hear him running the experiment and discussing the results. But as far as I can tell, searching for Serge Caparos Himba color again leaves us without any publication that describes the experiment we’re looking for.

So either

  1. The experiment was abandoned because it failed, or because serious design flaws turned up in the review process; or
  2. The experiment was abandoned because the author(s) went on to other things, or couldn’t write it up for personal reasons; or
  3. The experiment has been published, but my search techniques were unable to find it.

Whatever the explanation, I submit that the BBC documentary (and the subsequent coverage) has given us a sensationalist interpretation of an undocumented experiment, presented as reliable science, without giving us any basis to trust that this interpretation is even close to true.

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Greetings Ven. Dhammanando

I did read the article, but not all the way to the end. So for that, my apologies. I had a memory of seeing this information years ago, so searched it up to post a link that someone could conveniently digest. I will ensure that I read any linked articles more thoroughly in the future.

Having read to the end I can see why the author casts doubt upon the idea. Still, I could not believe that the BBC would have shown a documentary to this effect unless there was at least some supporting evidence.

Having dug a little more, I’ve found my way through the dead end that the author of the original article, Mark Liberman, found himself at.

From what I have found, the link between language and perception is very real. I’ve posted the trail of breadcrumbs I followed and what I found at the end. I will edit my original reply to incorporate this new information.

Given the information at hand, it seems my conclusion in the previous post is still warranted. Replacing multiple Pali words with a single English word is a bad idea.

The author of the article, Mark Liberman, casts doubt on the experiment
https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=17970

The same author contacts Serge Caparos, named in the BBC, to find nformation on a similar experment
https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=18237

In the letter, Serge names Debbie Robertson as the main experimenter.

Hello,

I recently read your post on Language Log about a recent Business Insider article that claimed (via a link to BBC documentary footage) that the Himba people of Namibia could not distinguish blue from green.

I was looking into this for my own purposes, and I contacted Serge [Caparos], who was the person shown in the video. He wrote me back as follows:

In 2011, the BBC approached Jules Davidoff about his published colour work (that he did with Debi Roberson between 1998 and 2008). They wanted to send out a team to film something on it. Jules explained to them that they had not done any colour work in Namibia for several years, but that the field site was still active as I was there collecting data on visual attention. So Jules asked me to set up a demonstration for the BBC. The colour work is not actually my work, it’s mostly Debi Roberson’s, so any question you have might best be sent to her.

Debbie Robertson’s published research paper
ProgressInColour.pdf (213.1 KB)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43627151_Colour_categories_and_category_acquisition_in_Himba_and_English

The research paper provides a more nuanced view, however concludes that language affects perception:

A series of cross-cultural studies of adult colour categorization have found consistent differences in a range of perceptual and memory tasks, systematically linked to the colour categories in each culture (Davidoff, Davies & Roberson 1999; Roberson, Davies & Davidoff 2000). Most recently, Roberson, Davidoff, Davies & Shapiro (2005) have shown that, even though two coding systems may appear to be superficially very similar, speakers of the two languages encode, remember and discriminate colour stimuli in different ways. Himba, a language spoken by a semi-nomadic, cattle-herding people in South West Africa, shows similarity in its number of linguistic categories for colour to Berinmo, the Papua New Guinean language previously studied by Roberson et al. (2000). Both languages have five basic colour categories, according to the criteria of Kay et al. (1991). However, Himba participants showed categorical perception only for their own linguistic categories and not for either the supposed universal categories, as occurring in English, or to those of the Berinmo language.

According to the big Oxford English Dictionary, ‘loving-kindness’ first appeared in the English language in the 1535 Coverdale bible at Psalms xxv.6 and lxxxix.33 as a translation of the Hebrew ‘chesed’ = ‘goodness’. I believe there was a move among early translators to make Buddhism acceptable to Christians by using biblical vocabulary like ‘Sabbath’, ‘sloth’ and ‘loving-kindness’ for *uposatha’, thīna and ‘metta’. I like the translations ‘kindness’ or ‘goodwill’ and recommend Thanissaro’s essay, “Metta means Goodwill” https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/BeyondAllDirections/Section0007.html.

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I had the exact same experience in England. Roman Catholic nuns and ecclesiastical Latin in Chapel. Julius Caesar, exams, and different pronunciation in the classroom.

I was introduced to the the idea that a culture’s perception of the colour spectrum and it’s words for colours are mutually conditioning in Linguistics 101 textbooks in the 1980s. I forget now when or by whom the idea was first proposed. Malinowski in the 1930s? Anyway this paper on Himba needs to be read in context of a longish anthropological discussion.

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Thank you for the extra information; it is interesting to know that this exploration goes back decades. If I am understanding you correctly, by mutually conditioning you mean that perception affects language and language affects perception right?

I did some more research and found this interesting snippet on another study on how language affects perception:

Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?

…The team repeated the experiment with shapes. The Spanish word “taza” encompasses both cups and mugs, whereas English distinguishes between the two. When Spanish and English speakers were presented with pictures of a cup, mug, or bowl, the difference between the cup and mug elicited greater electrical activity in the brains of English speakers than> in Spanish speakers.

These speedy spikes in brain activity occur even when people are unaware of them. But does the altered perception have an effect on subsequent actions? That’s hard to say, according to Thierry. “Our results are very much about unconscious processing by the human brain,” he says. “The very nature of this kind of research entails that any links to overt behavior and attitude can only be tentative.”

But few researchers today seek such links, or support the extreme notion that users of one language think entirely differently than those who speak another tongue. Linguistic relativity can take many forms — some seemingly more mundane than others. Perhaps knowing an extra word for blue simply influences what we see on an Aegean holiday.

And yet, surely what we see, smell, and otherwise sense fuels at least some of our thinking. That’s why researchers continue to probe the interplay between language and cognitive activity. Understanding the effects of color categories in different languages is only a first step. “In the bigger picture, it’s about principles that are broadly generalizable,” Regier says. “It’s really about the effect of a communicative system on thought.”

This is particularly relevant in light of the fact that the word love has little to do with metta, as discussed in this thread.

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Yes you do. Though conditioning is Buddhist language. I forget the anthropology terminology. Sorry.

I find it interesting to ponder what things I might not notice in my seeing, my hearing etc just because there aren’t words in my language. It helps the aggregates separate out.

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