Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages
define its subject matter, “culture,” and to determine the boundaries between acquired and innate aspects of human behavior. In order to shed light on this question, it wasessential to determine to what extent the cognitive traits of primitive people differed from those of civilized people, and the role of the expedition was to advance beyond the mostly anecdotal evidence that had been available before. As the leader of the expedition explained, “For the first time trained experimental psychologists investigated by means of adequate laboratory equipment a people in a low stage of culture under their ordinary conditions of life.” The multivolume meticulous reports that were published by Rivers and the other members in subsequent years helped to make the distinction between natural and cultural traits clearer, and the Torres Straits expedition is thus widely credited as the event that turned anthropology into a serious science.

    W. H. R. Rivers with friends
    Rivers’s own reason for joining the expedition in 1898 was the opportunity to conduct detailed experiments on the eyesight of the natives. During the 1890s, he had been immersed in the study of vision, and so was keen to resolve the controversy over the color sense, which had not progressed much in the previous two decades. He wanted to see for himself how the color vision of the natives related to their color vocabularyand whether the capacity for appreciating differences correlated with the power of expressing those differences in language.
    Rivers spent four months on the remote Murray Island, at the eastern edge of the Torres Straits, right at the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. With a population of about 450, the island offered a manageably small community of friendly natives who were “sufficiently civilized” to enable him to make all his observations and yet, as he put it, “were sufficiently near their primitive condition to be thoroughly interesting. There is no doubt that thirty years ago they were in a completely savage stage, absolutely untouched by civilization.”
    What Rivers found in the color vocabulary of the islanders fitted well with the reports from the previous twenty years. Descriptions of color were generally vague and indefinite, and sometimes a cause of much uncertainty. The most definite names were for black, white, and red. The word for “black,”
, derived from
, “cuttlefish” (Rivers suggested that this referred to the dark ink secreted by the animal), “white” was
(with no obvious etymology), and the word for “red,”
, was clearly derived from
, “blood.” Most people used
also for pink and brown. Other colors had progressively less definite and conventional names. Yellow and orange were called by many people
, “turmeric”), but by others
, “yellow ocher”). Green was called
by many (from
, “bile,” “gallbladder”), but others used “leaf color” or “pus color.” The vocabulary for blue and violet shades was even vaguer. Some younger speakers used the word
, obviously a recent borrowing from English “blue.” But Rivers reports that “the old men agreed that their own proper word for blue was
(black).” Violet was also mostly called
    Rivers noted that often “lively discussions were started among the natives as to the correct name of a colour.” When asked to indicate the names of certain colors, many islanders said they would need to consult wiser men. And when pressed to give an answer nevertheless, they simply tended to think of a name of particular objects. For example, when shown a yellowish green shade, one man called it “sea green” and pointed to the position of one particular large reef in view.
    The vocabulary of the Murray Islanders was clearly “defective,” but what about their eyesight? Rivers examined more than two hundred of them

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