An Economist article on a perennial subject, how different languages divide up the color spectrum and what that says about human psychology.

Like many debates in psychology, this one pits congenital, fundamentally genetic, explanations against explanations that rely on environmental determinism. Psychologists in the former camp think people are born with ingrained ideas about how hues are grouped. They believe the brain is preconditioned to pick out the six colours on a Rubik’s cube whatever tongue it is taught to think in. The other camp, by contrast, thinks that the spectrum can be chopped into categories anywhere along its length. Moreover, they suspect that the language an individual learns from his parents is the main explanation for where that chopping takes place.
As with most nature-versus-nurture debates, compromise seems in order. Two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest where the middle ground lies.
In the more recent of the two, which appeared this week, Terry Regier, of the University of Chicago, and his colleagues, picked at the question of preconditioned language categories. They used a grid displaying all possible hues rolled into a globe, with black at the north pole and white at the south. In this model, colours stick out from the sphere according to how sensitive the visual system is to them… He thinks that useful languages should allot words in order to minimise the perceptual difference between colours of the same category, and maximise it between colours in different categories. Unlike national boundaries, linguistic boundaries should form only in the valleys of his colour globe, never over the hills.
Dr Regier therefore programmed his computer to find the best valley borders according to whether he told it to create three, four, five or six “countries” on the globe. Then, to judge whether people build languages around what their brains are best attuned to, he compared these theoretically best divisions with real-world dividing lines.
…The model closely fits some languages and points correctly to some details. For instance, three-colour language systems, which lump red and yellow together, generally exclude whitish yellow from that category—as does the model. But the results also explain where nurture gets its wiggle room. Real lexical boundaries tend to vary where Dr Regier’s algorithm produced several options that were almost as good as each other.

The second study, comparing perceptions from the right and left visual fields, “suggests both sides are correct. There is a fundamental—presumably congenital—distinction, as shown by the fact that the non-linguistic side of the brain distinguishes between blue and green. But there is also a language-mediated one, as shown by the linguistic side’s greater response.” Interesting stuff, and I’ll be interested to see what my commenters (almost all of whom will know more about it than I) have to say. (Thanks go to Paul and Trevor for the link.)


  1. The phrasing of the article seems a bit odd; I really don’t know much about this, but the version I read wasn’t so much that “people are born with ingrained ideas” or that “the brain is preconditioned” as that the physiology of the eye determines how we see colour. i.e. even though it is true from a physicist’s perspective that colours fall on a continually graduated spectrum, our retinas don’t detect all wavelengths equally. If that’s true, finding a culture which divided up the colour spectrum completely differently to everyone else would be only marginally more likely than finding a pre-technological culture with a word for those wavelengths of light we simply can’t see, like ultraviolet or microwave.
    But I’m only parroting what I read somewhere.

  2. But seriously, I hear that linguists have 73 words for “grue”.

  3. Yeah, I heard that too, except I heard it was 99!

  4. In my college days I earned beer money by being a subject in student and faculty experiments in the psychology department. In one of these, the prof was recruiting people of various ethnic backgrounds (mine being Dutch) and asking them to say whether a variety of color slides in the blue-green spectrum were “more blue” or “more green”.

  5. Martin, after a while did they all look amber? 🙂

  6. Color! Color! Piraha! Waha! (Kali-kali piwa-wu!!)

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