Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The influence of language on paintings

Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor department of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted a number of studies on the influence of language on how we perceive the world. She noted in particular how linguistic differences between different languages influences the way we see and the way artists paint.

For instance, “Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.” (Wall Street Journal article: Lost in Translation)

Language is of particular influence with non concrete words and concepts and how we visualize them.

Knight, Death and the Devil by Albrecht Dürer 1513. Engraving. 24,6 × 18,9 cm. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.” (How does our language shape the way we think? [6.12.09] By Lera Boroditsky)

Further readings

Lera Boroditsky’s website with a selection of her papers and articles. She has a refreshing sense of humour (scroll over her picture and you will understand what I mean)

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