Language and Color

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchEdge asked prominent scholars a great question, What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

 Lera Boroditsky, in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, called her post, “Do our languages shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the very way we see the world?”  (And just for the record, I got turned onto this great collection at Edge by kerim’s post, Rethinking Language and Culture, over at Savage Minds, so please check what kerim has to say!)

 Here’s the opening Boroditsky provides us:

 “I used to think that languages and cultures shape the ways we think. I suspected they shaped the ways we reason and interpret information.  But I didn’t think languages could shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the way we actually see the world.  That part of cognition seemed too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language.”

More interesting, however, is how experimental results change her mind:

 “We did one experiment after another, and each time to my surprise and annoyance, we found consistent cross-linguistic differences.  They were there even when people could see all the colors at the same time when making their decisions.  They were there even when people had to make objective perceptual judgments.  They were there when no language was involved or necessary in the task at all.  They were there when people had to reply very quickly.  We just kept seeing them over and over again, and the only way to get the cross-linguistic differences to go away was to disrupt the language system.  If we stopped people from being able to fluently access their language, then the cross-linguistic differences in perception went away.”

Her conclusion: “I set out to show that language didn’t affect perception, but I found exactly the opposite.  It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.”

 Here’s the info on one relevant paper:

 Winawer J, Witthoft N, Frank MC, Wu L, Wade AR, Boroditsky L. 2007. Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(19) (May 8):7780-5.

Abstract: English and Russian color terms divide the color spectrum differently. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”). We investigated whether this linguistic difference leads to differences in color discrimination. We tested English and Russian speakers in a speeded color discrimination task using blue stimuli that spanned the siniy/goluboy border. We found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). Moreover, this category advantage was eliminated by a verbal, but not a spatial, dual task. These effects were stronger for difficult discriminations (i.e., when the colors were perceptually close) than for easy discriminations (i.e., when the colors were further apart). English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions. These results demonstrate that (i) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference). 

And you can also get Lera’s papers online: 

4 thoughts on “Language and Color

  1. I was just trying the experiment described in Kay and Kempton’s 1984 piece on “What is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” in my language class this week (where the existence of a linguistic distinction between blue and green appears to influence discriminations among three color chips among English speakers). Interesting to read this so soon afterwards!

  2. Fascinating paper in PNAS! Thanks for pointing it out, Daniel. I taught a section on color perception when I did a course, ‘Anthropology of Perception,’ at Columbia University WAAAAAY back in 2000. At the time, there was fascinating stuff out on color perception, responses to Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Terms (1969). It was one of the more fascinating week’s worth of reading, and it sounds like the area of research is still generating new discoveries.

    My one issue with this is that there seems to be slight shortcut being taken when the authors (and Lera Boroditsky in the interview) say that ‘language’ causes the difference in perceptions. I would argue that they probably should use the more open term, ‘linguistic practice’ or ‘language use.’ It’s not just that ‘language’ makes the distinction; it’s probably also that people using the language get lots of practice making the perceptual distinction. Linking the abstraction, ‘language,’ to the effect of changed perception, seems to be a minor, but problematic, little slip in the explanation. I think that my reservations are entirely consistent with pragmatic linguistic anthropology, including much of what Sapir and Whorf were arguing, but it seems to me to be an important distinction.

    More importantly, how nice to see a researcher like Boroditsky, and the others that Edge talked to, discussing how research has changed their theoretical opinions. It’s certainly been my experience, and it’s an important thing for younger scholars to know. It was one of the thing I always really admired about some of my professors at the University of Chicago; they had been around long enough, and been prolific long enough, that the change in their thinking was public. The ones who acknowledged it and discussed it were great role models for treating anthropology as an unfinished science, learning and developing better paradigms for understanding human diversity.

    Like always, Daniel, thanks for the posting.

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