An interesting story on a study involving the much-discussed influence of language on perception:

University of California researchers tested the hypothesis that language plays a role in perception by carrying out a series of colour tests.
They found that people were able to identify colours faster in their right visual field than in their left.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study said it was because the right field is processed in the brain area responsible for language…
They asked 13 people to identify a colour on a square among a group of other squares all of which were the same colour.
In one test the squares were all shades of blue, with one square being a different shade.
In the second test there was two colours used, blue and green. The participants were quicker in the second test at identifying the different colour square when it was in their right field of vision – to the right of their head.
There was no difference in speed in the first test, suggesting because the colours had a different name in the second test the mind was able to identify the colour more quickly when it was seen in a certain field of vision.

I finally found the abstract of the actual PNAS article, “Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left” (the full article requires a subscription). It’ll be a long time before we know how all this stuff works, but I’m always glad to see experiments that shed a little light. (Thanks for the tip, Anatoly!)
Update. See now Mark Lieberman’s detailed discussion (with illustrations) in Language Log.


  1. Of course, that’s the weaker Whorf hypothesis, or the weak linguistic-relativity hypothesis. (Odd that I’ve only ever seen experiments on it for color, at least since the 90s.) Not that it hinders the stronger hypothesis in popular culture: last week I had the TV telling me about cultures without a concept of time.

  2. Paul Kay has done some excellent research on language and the perception of color. I got to study his research in my undergrad days in the Cal Linguistics department.
    The BBC article is misleading, however when it says that, “They found that people were able to identify colours faster in their right visual field than in their left.”
    If you read the abstract, you’ll see that what was actually discovered is that reaction times for the right visual field (left brain/language) were faster when the target and distractor colors *had different names*. Response times to the left visual field (right brain/non-linguistic) were unaffected by names.
    My understanding is that the use of names allows us to make quicker perceptions when the stimuli corresponds to our language, but we have a redundancy built it, the right brain, for when we don’t have language. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find that men exhibit a greater difference in response times than women, and non-artists a greater difference than visual artists.
    Paul Kay’s work does show that the category “colors” has a cognitive structure that is evident in language use. Every language has a set of basic color terms and there is a universal order in which they develop. For languages with two basic color terms, these terms always refer to “dark/black” and “light/white”. Three terms are always black, white and red. The next term to be added is “grue” (blue-green) or yellow, then the other. The last of the set order terms is the division of grue into terms for blue and green. After that it’s a free for all for brown, orange, purple, pink and grey. When I asked him, Kay said he thought the next basic color terms to be added were “tan” or “beige”, “turquoise” and “magenta”. Not necessarily those words, but their corresponding colors would become “basic” colors.
    We have evidence of languages adding basic color terms. Japanese used to have just two- which gave rise to the myth that the Japanese could perceive color until Westerners taught them how. That’s not how it works, althought as the article you posted indicates, non-basic color terms do indicate cognitive differences in perception.
    Another interesting example is from Havasupai, a Native American language from Arizona. At first contact, the Havasupai had terms for grue and yellow. Within a generation or so of contact with English speakers, the language had developed terms for blue and green.
    Yes, this is fascinating stuff!

  3. Yvonne raises some good points in her article. Greek and Somali did not originally have words for “blue” either but today they have Mplé (Blé) and “Blu” almost certainly as a result of contacts with Westerners.
    I heard that there is also some evidence that the human eye is most sensitive to the colors green, yellow and light brown because the human race evolve in the rain forests in its early evolution and these are the colors of the forest floor. .
    Though I haven’t been able to locate what would be considered an original article I have found some stuff on the internet which corroborates it.
    From the “Olympus Microscopy Resource Center” a report says:
    “The human eye is much more sensitive to yellow-green or similar hues, particularly at night, and now most new emergency vehicles are at least partially painted a vivid yellowish green or white, often retaining some red highlights in the interest of tradition.”
    And: From ‘Vision FAQ’
    “The human eye is not equally sensitive to all colors…
    The eye is most sensitive in the green – yellow portion at around 550nm at night when it is using its rod sensors.”
    It would seem that White, Yellow, Green and maybe Light- brown were among the first colors humans developed words for.

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