Whimsy, Wonka, and Words

There are some island cultures in the world with only three words for colors.  These generally correspond to black, white, and red. The people of these cultures have no trouble identifying a new color, like green, if a word to label it is introduced.  But until such a label is introduced, they essentially see the world in only the three colors for which they have words.

Saudade is a Portuguese word.  It was once described as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future.”  It is a feeling similar to nostalgia, but not precisely the same. It is the feeling of love that remains after the object of that love is gone. There is no single word in English that describes this exact feeling. As a result, those of us who do not speak Portuguese struggle to identify our experience of saudade. The very act of naming something – a feeling, a color – allows us to perceive it.

Please bear this in mind.

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© United Press Syndicate

© United Press Syndicate

As a child, I started each morning with the funny pages. My favorite strip was Calvin and Hobbes. I was drawn to Bill Watterson’s gorgeous illustrations, to Hobbes’ straight-faced hilarity, and to the rich worlds conjured by Calvin’s imagination. Today, though I am an adult, the strip has lost none of its meaning to me. Indeed, I think that I pick up on jokes, references, and artistic choices now that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. The strip has become MORE interesting and poignant as I’ve aged, not less.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. From Gene Wilder’s iconic performance as the mad genius Wonka, to the fantastical art direction, to the undercurrent of danger running through the whole thing, there’s really nothing about the film I don’t like.

Calvin and Hobbes and Willy Wonka are separated by around twenty years.  They do not explicitly reference each other. But in my mind, there is some connecting aesthetic tissue between these two works of art.  They are both funny, and yet there are moments of dark seriousness. They both deal with children and their relationships to adults.  And they both are paeans to the power of imagination.

These works share a particular artistic perspective, and it is one I value highly. It is a way of looking at the world through a child’s eyes, with an adult intellect. Calvin is preternaturally intelligent, with a vocabulary far beyond that of an ordinary six year old, but he goes to school, plays games, and gets in trouble like any other child.  Willy Wonka is an adult who references O’Shaughnessy, Wilde, and Shakespeare, but he lives in a fantasy world of his own creation, and clearly relates better to children (and oompa loompas) than adults.  I find this shared artistic perspective tremendously interesting, and yet I cannot for the life of me come up with a word to describe it.

The closest words I’ve come up with so far are “innocence” and “whimsy,” but neither one seems quite right.  Innocence is often taken to mean naiveté, or even ignorance. However, the real root of the word innocence is not the Latin noscere, meaning “knowing,” but nocere, meaning “evil or guilty”.  Innocence actually means to be without evil.  It is interesting to note that there does not seem to be evil in either the world of Willy Wonka or Calvin and Hobbes.  No matter how badly Calvin misbehaves, or how twisted Wonka’s tests are, they are not done with malice.  In fact, Mr. Slugworth, the only real villain in the Wonka film, turns out to be an employee of Wonka, who was simply testing Charlie’s morals!  So innocence is a characteristic of the works of art in question, but it is not precisely the one that I’m trying to focus on.

I like whimsy more – the word just sounds fun, the way it breezes off of the tongue. Many of the fanciful ideas in Calvin and Hobbes and Willy Wonka could certainly be called whimsical.  But I think that whimsy connotes not just a lack of seriousness, but also a lack of meaningfulness. Something described as whimsical is rarely thought to be of real value.  This is the exact opposite of the artistic characteristic I recognize in these works. They are filled with meaning because of their child-like perspective.

Wayne.

I’ve deliberately left music out of this discussion up to this point, because I’ve had a difficult time pinpointing this artistic perspective in musical works.  More often music is deliberately adult – dealing with themes of romance, mortality, and fate. Perhaps it is too literary of an idea to find in music, but I think there are a few musicians who manage to capture the characteristic I’m attempting to define.  I think one of the strongest contenders has to be Wayne Shorter.  I’m reminded of a passage from Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography:

“In the inner sanctum of the Shorter household, Wayne’s imagination flourished until it took on flamboyant forms and an almost absurd magnitude.  By the time Wayne was seven, he and [his brother] Alan presumed they could conjure up the entire planet with their bare hands. ‘One time we had a whole bunch of clay on the kitchen table,’ Wayne said. ‘We said, ‘Let’s make the whole world!’”

Calvin and Hobbes and Willy Wonka are united by a shared belief in the immense power of imagination.  Imagination is not something just for the play of children; it is a primal force.  It can create and destroy worlds.  Hobbes is alive because in the world that Calvin has created, he is a living, breathing tiger.  Willy Wonka’s factory is a world he has created for himself, where little orange men mix chocolate, bubbles can make you fly, and children can be miniaturized by television or blown up like blueberries. And Wayne Shorter continues to re-imagine his compositions, creating vast new worlds of sonic possibilities each evening. This is art where the subject is not love, or death, or triumph over adversity.  This is art about imagination itself.

Pure imagination.

Now why isn’t there a single word to describe that?  It took me about 1000.  Any suggestions?

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Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 4:04 am  Comments (6)  

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  2. But until such a label is introduced, they essentially see the world in only the three colors for which they have words.

    I’m pretty sure that is not actually the case, Matt. Language is not the same thing as sensory experience, and having a word for something is completely independent from actually perceiving it. If knowing the word for a color is a prerequisite for experiencing that color, how would anyone (children, for instance) learn to assign a word to a color they don’t currently experience? This strikes me as one of those “we only use 10% of our brains”-type myths.

    • Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, published in 1969 by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, was the first major scientific work on this subject. They grouped 98 different languages according to the number of baisc color terms they contained, and there were 9 languages, mostly from New Guinea, that had only Black/White terms, and 21 languages, primarily African, that had only Black/White/Red terms. English, like most modern languages, had a complete set of all 11 basic color terms. So that part of it is well documented.

      The question of how language influences thought is a stickier one, but it’s a vibrant field of research among cognitive psychologists and linguists. An interesting overview of the topic is on wikipedia:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

      I’ve read some of the work of Steven Pinker and George Lakoff, mentioned in the wiki article as holding opposing viewpoints about linguistic relativity. The jury is still out, at least until we learn more about how the brain functions and creates a mind.

      But I think my basic argument is sound. I believe that our experience of the world is deepened through knowledge. I’ll give you an example: I don’t know anything about botany. I look at a lawn, and I see grass. I may notice that not all the grass is the same, but I don’t have any language to describe the differences. So if you asked me, “hey, what’s in this lawn?” I would answer, “grass.”

      A botanist, on the other hand, might recognize that there’s kentucky bluegrass, and a patch of clover, and perhaps some dandelion leaves, and that the lawn looks like it needs water, and that there could be grubs over in one corner. All of the time our botanist has spent learning about plants, putting them into mental categories, yields a more complete picture of the world. That isn’t to say that all of those details were not present when I looked at the lawn – I just could not see them.

      I may write more about this in a later post; I’m really interested in the way that the brain works, and how it creates our experience of the world. But that’s enough for now. This comment thread is already much too serious for an article about whimsy!

  3. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the detailed followup! My skepticism wasn’t about the existence of languages with a limited number of color terms, but about whether native speakers of such languages do not perceive the full color spectrum. I think it’s been pretty clearly documented that this isn’t the case (“the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was seen as completely discredited”).

    Obviously, no one disputes that “our experience of the world is deepened through knowledge” and of course this is all completely tangential to your larger point so I won’t belabor it any further, but it seemed important to point out that language and perception are two completely different things. We’ve all perceived things we can’t put into words; we all know words for things we’ve never personally perceived.

  4. Have to agree on the argument of language and perception. As a linguistics major, I too learned about Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was disproved by many scientists. Though certain languages only have words for black/white/red, it doesn’t mean they cannot perceive green or yellow.

    It is interesting to note that there are tiers for which colors will be included in a language that has limited terms for colors. If your language has only two colors, they will always be black and white, not green and pink, or yellow and blue. If your language has three colors, they are always black, white and red, not yellow, orange and purple or any other combination thereof.

    A language that has a term for pink will always have a term for red, but not vice versa. An example of this is Mandarin, whose term for pink is literally “light red.”

    • Whew, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing! None of us are neuro-linguisists, so this is probably a futile debate. But from MY reading (which is filled with “neo-whorfians” and “universalists” – it’s like a bad Star Trek episode), saying that Sapir-Whorf has been “disproved” is overstating the case. The strong version of the claim, that perception is completely determined by language, is probably not true. A weaker version of the claim, however, is supported by current research – that perception, particularly of things involving categories (such as colors, or musical tones) IS influenced by language, especially near the boundaries between categories.

      Some examples of the research:

      -In a brain-damaged patient suffering from a naming disorder, the loss of color labels destroyed his ability to categorize colors.
      (Roberson, Davidoff & Braisby, 1999)

      -It is possible to train someone to perceive a new color category boundary in the lab. (Özgen and Davies 2002)

      But like most things in life, the reality of the situation is not so black and white. As Paul Kay summarizes in a 2006 paper:

      “More broadly, we argue that the separate questions of (1) the existence of universal
      constraints on color naming and (2) the influence of color-naming differences on
      differences in color cognition should not be confounded under a rhetoric of ‘relativism’
      versus ‘universalism.’ Current evidence supports both the existence of universal
      constraints on color naming and the influence of color-naming difference on color
      memory and discrimination.”

      In other words, everybody’s a winner…

      and the human brain is really complicated.


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