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How Language Changes Our Perception of Color Posted by 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!

PM4Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free language level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact with any questions.

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  1. Neil Lucock:

    If you don’t have many words to describe ideas, you put things into the nearest group that makes sense. Homer talks of “wine dark sea”. The sea is blue, green, gray but not dark red. However, if he was using wine (translucent and dark qualities) because it was nearest to what he wanted to say, it makes sense. It’s only when people make dyes and need to discuss colour as something apart from a physical object, that you need a new word. If you can now dye cloth “sky colour on a sunny day” you’ll need the word for blue. If you have never smelled pineapple (or disinfectant), how do you describe the smell to another person? Once you have a pint-shop colour chart, you realise that blue has a lot of different tones.
    BTW, the Greeks have different words for light blue and dark blue. The Chinese character for “blue” can also mean green, so the distinction may be a cultural one.

  2. Gwyneth Marshal:

    Sorry, but the Himba experiments were…exaggerated.

    • Paul:

      @Gwyneth Marshal Thanks for pointing this out, Gwyneth! It’s important to get the facts straight, as popular articles are notoriously bad at reporting science.

      While the difference is not an *inability* to perceive different colors, as suggested in some of the articles, I still think it’s an important difference. Differences in reaction time of just 50-60 milliseconds can be a big deal in the psycholinguistics world when these differences reach the threshold of significance. So even though it wasn’t as dramatic as the BBC documentary claimed, I maintain that it’s an important distinction.

      For that reason, I strayed from the language used in some popular articles (e.g., “unable to perceive”) and used a softer version (e.g., “more readily perceive”), so as to be more faithful to what the authors originally claimed.

  3. Audrey:

    Language has obviously influence on our thoughts, but just because it is a part of our cultural heritage.
    As an example, in Spain we learn that the rainbow has 7 colors, while in Canada it only has 6. For us in Spain, the 7th color is indigo, not pink like in the UK.
    Our rainbow looks like…
    Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and purple
    What about yours?

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