Tag Archives: philosp[hy

Color Percetption and Linguistic Effects – Our words affect what we see


I just went looking for a story I heard about years ago.  Some tribes don’t have words for all of the colors that have names in the English language.  The upshot was that, as a consequence, they are unable to discriminate between the two colors that are lumped into the same linguistic category.  Blue and Green share the same word, and so they look the same.

I think this is the person who found that data (from the American Psychological Association):

University of Essex psychologist Debi Roberson, PhD, and others … have found results that … suggest that there are differences–small but nonetheless significant–in the color perception of speakers of different languages.

“These kinds of categorical perception effects seem to be language-dependent,” says Davies, who has collaborated with Roberson on some of those studies. “If an African language doesn’t mark a blue-green boundary, then adult speakers don’t seem to show categorical perception across that boundary, whereas English speakers do.”

I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they controlled for genetic effects. Obviously, if this tribe happens to have a high incidence of inherited color-blindness, then they would lack words in their language for colors they can’t see.

But I think it’s really an interesting thing to consider.  Could we see more colors if we invented names for them? Would that enrich our lives?

Using color-language as a metaphor, how much could our world-view change just by modifying our “mental vocabulary”?