A few pieces for the reflections about colors and speech:
This week in the journal Nature, researchers report that study of two stone-age tribes suggests that language may in fact influence perception.
The theory that we construct our understanding of the world through language -- called the linguistic relativity hypothesis -- "is still influential,'' write the team, led by Jules Davidoff of Goldsmiths' College, University of London, UK. They note that a previous researcher suggested that Eskimos have many words for snow, reflecting their experiences with different types of the white stuff.
The investigators write that the Dani of Irian Jaya are a Melanesian people who have only two terms for describing color. Yet the Dani memory for color seems to be much like that of modern English speakers.
But the Berinmo tribe, hunter-gatherers in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, offer an opposing view. These tribal people have five basic color terms, but do not distinguish between blue and green. Instead, they have a distinction for shades of yellow, called nol and wor, which English speakers do not.
In their study, Davidoff and colleagues found that the Berinmo were better able to categorize colors around their nol-wor boundary than the blue-green boundary. But they were able to learn to divide colors into blue or green, just as English-speaking individuals were able to learn the distinction between nol and wor. Both groups learned to distinguish between two greens that are not categorized in either language.
"These results 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 researchers write. In other words, the study shows that words do appear to influence how humans perceive their world.
SOURCE: Nature 1999;398:203-204.
DOES THE LANGUAGE you speak affect the way you perceive the world? Jules Davidoff, a psychologist at Goldsmith College in London, claims that it does. His new study challenges the idea that colour perception is universal. Since 1972 research by Eleanor Rosch, now at the University of California at Berkeley, has dominated the field. She compared colour discrimination by North Americans with that of the Dani from Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The Dani use only two words to describe all the colours they see, whereas English speakers normally distinguish 11 separate colours, including black, white and grey. Rosch asked the volunteers to remember a colour they were shown, then pick it out from similar ones. She concluded from her results that despite differences in the way the two groups described colour, the American and Dani volunteers made very similar errors, evidence that they were perceiving colours in the same way. The finding lent powerful support to the idea that such perception is universal, and not altered by culture. "It was the first trickle in the flood of the genetic determinism bandwagon that we're all on now," says Davidoff. Davidoff and his colleagues have now repeated the experiments and come to completely different conclusions. His group studied the Burinmo of Papua New Guinea, a remote hunter-gatherer people who use only five words to describe colours. They found that both the Burinmo and British volunteers found it easier to remember colours they could easily name. Unlike English speakers, the Burinmo don't distinguish between green and blue, but they distinguish two colours English speakers don't: nol (which different English speakers would describe as green or blue or purple) and wor (in English, yellow, orange, brown or green). The researchers asked Burinmo and English volunteers to look at a colour, remember it for a few seconds, then select the same colour from a pair of similar alternatives. Not surprisingly, the Burinmo had trouble distinguishing between blues and greens, while English subjects had problems with shades of nol and wor. In another experiment, Davidoff's team asked both the English and the Burinmo groups to learn a new distinction: between two types of green. The volunteers then had to sort colours into two stacks. The Burinmo found it just as hard to separate blue from green as to distinguish between the two greens, whereas the English volunteers found the nol/wor distinction most difficult to grasp. The researchers also took a second look at the data from Rosch's study, which Davidoff says most people would interpret differently. People find it easier to distinguish colours if the division corresponds to a linguistic, rather than a supposed universal, distinction, the team concludes in this week's Nature (vol 398, p 203). "The effects of culture are being underestimated," says Davidoff.