Red Squirrels, Robins and Sapir-Whorf

English: Red Squirrel One of the many red squi...

English: Red Squirrel One of the many red squirrels still to be found in Lanthwaite Wood and near Scale Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


When fils cadet was smaller, we used to go to a pre-school music group. Once there was a song about a red squirrel, with a beautiful puppet as a prop. “That’s not red, that’s orange!” objected fils cadet, quite put out. From then on, he insisted on singing “orange squirrel” instead. Beyond agreeing with him that the squirrel was orange really, and explaining that we call it red, I didn’t think too much about it.


Then last week on QI, there was some discussion as to why robins feature on Christmas cards (to do with cards being brought by postmen known as red-breasts, if you’re interested) in which it was explained that robin redbreast, red squirrels, red kites, red deer and red-haired people were so named before the term “orange” had been introduced to English with the fruit. Until then, the part of the colour spectrum we now call orange had been filed under red. Again, all very interesting, but so what?


Well, this morning, walking home from the school run, I saw a robin in a bramble bush and looked at it properly for the first time. Do you know what? It doesn’t have a red chest at all. It’s orange! Now I knew that red squirrels and all the rest are orange really, although I’d never really thought about why they’re called red. But the same hadn’t filtered through to my ideas about robins. Everybody knows robins have red breasts. Unless the robin on your Christmas card is a photograph, it will probably have a red chest. When fils aîné made finger-painted robins last Christmas, we used red paint.


Robin on a branch

A robin. Now, what colour is it again?
(image: public domain, CC0)

I suddenly realised that the words we use to describe robins had stopped me seeing them properly all along. And I wondered what it would be like to go back to before the term “orange” was introduced. Would we distinguish that colour shade in a different way, or would we just see it as red? It always struck me as odd that certain languages don’t distinguish between blue and green, for instance, or to think about Homer and his “wine-dark sea”. Does the coining of a word for a colour help us see it differently? This is all pretty basic stuff in terms of linguistic research, going back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t until my little light-bulb moment this morning that I really understood how that could be. After all, orange and red are clearly different. Aren’t they?




About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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5 Responses to Red Squirrels, Robins and Sapir-Whorf

  1. Fips says:

    Couldn’t agree more, and I don’t really understand how many linguists argue against this fundamental notion. Sure, it probably doesn’t have much influence on the way we communicate, certainly not in the pop-science way that you often read about (I recently read an article that said the reason for the disparities in European economies rests with the fact that some, e.g. German, tend not to rely on a future tense, and so saving happens today, not tomorrow). But all those little things add up. I’ve certainly painted my fair share of robin redbreasts!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve noticed that my husband (who is not a native English speaker, although very fluent) does not ‘see’ certain colours because he does not have the words for them (purple, violet, lilac, indigo are all the same to him, for instance) and because his own mothertongue does not distinguish between them. And of course that goes for all sorts of things, not just colours, but it is far too easy and tempting to go the ‘pop-science’ way with it, as you describe above. Still, I would say the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be valuable if we use it in a subtle way.

  3. Lovely post Rachel, never considered that properly before!

  4. Pingback: Red squirrels playing, video | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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