For once, the NY Times has a language-related piece that doesn’t make me turn red and sputter like a retired colonel. The Sunday Magazine has an article, “Color Cognition” by Dirk Olin, that actually presents interesting facts in a meaningful way. It’s the old chestnut of how different languages divide up the spectrum, but for a short magazine piece Olin does a pretty good job of laying out the theories.
The world clearly has many shades of color meaning. Literary Welsh has no words that correspond with green, blue, gray or brown in English, but it uses others that English speakers don’t (including one that covers part of green, part of gray and the whole of our blue). Hungarian has two words for what we call red; Navajo, a single word for blue and green but two words for black. Ancient Greek’s emphases on variables like luminosity (as opposed to just hue) led some scholars to wonder seriously whether the culture at large was colorblind.
In a series of classic studies conducted during the late 1960’s, Eleanor Rosch, now with the University of California at Berkeley, compared color discrimination by Americans with that of the Dani people of Indonesia. English speakers typically use 11 separate ”elemental” color words (including black, white and gray), whereas the Dani use only two. Rosch tested the color memory of the two groups’ members—first showing them a color, then (after a short delay) asking them to find it in a separate group of similar colors. Despite the groups’ big difference in nomenclature, she found that they were perceiving colors in the same way. Rosch’s findings were seized upon by advocates of universality, who said terminology doesn’t affect cognition: color transcends culture.
But recent studies conducted by Debi Roberson, Ian Davies and Jules Davidoff (at the universities of Essex, Surrey and London) suggest otherwise. They examined the hunter-gatherer Berinmo tribe of Papua, New Guinea, a people with five basic color terms who don’t distinguish blue from green. (They do, however, have a distinction for shades of green—called nol and wor—that are not shared by Westerners.) In essence, they found that the Berinmo handled their nol-wor differences better than their blue v. green (while it was vice versa for English speakers). After practice, both groups were able to improve their discernment of the distinction that they previously hadn’t shared with their counterparts. ”These results,” Davidoff and his colleagues contended, ”indicate that categorical perception occurs, but only for speakers of the language that marks the categorical distinction, which is consistent with the linguistic relativity hypothesis.” (The relativity of color naming is just one manifestation of this broader concept, for which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a formula: ”large differences in language lead to large differences in thought.”)
There are other interesting quotes as well. A tip of the hat to the Paper of Record.