How Language Changes Our Perception of Color Posted by Transparent Language on Mar 18, 2015 in Archived Posts
Recently, the Internet has been abuzz with discussions about color, thanks to a now-notorious dress that some people perceive as gold and white, and others perceive as black and blue. There have been several explanations offered for this disparity, the most popular being that our perceptions vary based on how our brains interpret the amount of ambient light in the background.
There’s something else, however, that influences our perception of color, and it has nothing to with how our brains process light. In fact, recent studies have suggested that the language we speak can influence how we perceive color. The idea that language could affect a phenomenon so fundamental as color perception — something that we tend to think of as absolute and unchanging — taps into fundamental questions about the cognitive influence of language on thought.
To investigate the relationship between language and color, psychologists from the University of London tested how speakers of English and Himba — a language spoken in northern Namibia — categorize colors that were presented to them on a screen. The Himba language groups colors differently than English. For instance, Himba does not categorize green and blue separately (both use the word buru), whereas English does. Further, Himba uses different words to distinguish between various shades of green (dambu and zuzu refer to light and dark green, respectively), whereas English does not, instead classifying both dark green and light green as members of the same overarching “green” category.
The researchers found that, indeed, this linguistic difference translated into a perceptual difference: when shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square, Himba speakers had a hard time indicating which one was different from the others. However, when presented with 12 green squares, one of which was slightly lighter green than the others, the pattern reversed: Himba speakers readily identified the different shade, whereas English speakers did not. Check out this video to watch the experiment in action, and see if you can differentiate among the different shades of green.
In other words, speakers of both languages were better at distinguishing between colors that had a linguistic distinction in their language. That is, English speakers, whose language classifies “green” and “blue” separately, easily differentiated between the two. Similarly, Himba speakers, whose language encodes differences between shades of green, had no trouble distinguishing various green hues.
This experiment challenges the notion that color categories are absolute, and instead suggests that our perception of color is a social phenomenon — it’s influenced by categories that are arbitrarily imposed on us by the language we speak.
The research on color perception in Himba contributes to a larger body of experiments in linguistics and psychology which suggest that language can have a profound impact on how we perceive and understand the world. For example, Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language spoken in North Queensland, describes spatial relationships in a way that’s very unfamiliar to English speakers. Rather than using egocentric spatial descriptions (e.g., “The book is to my right”), speakers of Guugu Yimithirr use cardinal directions. Thus, instead of telling you to move “a few steps forward”, they’d ask you to move “a few steps to the southeast”.
As a result, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr seem to have internal compasses that surpass those of English speakers, even those who have an excellent sense of direction. They simply have an intuitive sense of what is north, south, east, or west, much like how English speakers have an intuitive sense of what is to their right and left.
Theoretical linguists have traditionally dismissed the idea that language can shape thought, in favor of ideas based on Universal Grammar, which claims that all languages are, at their core, effectively the same. However, studies of color in Himba or direction in Guugu Yimithirr certainly seem to suggest that the language we speak has some influence on how we think and perceive the world.
What do you think about the relationship between language and thought — can the language we speak really change the way we think? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!
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