Re: virus: Colours (splitting the spectrum)

Lionel Bonnetier (
Tue, 20 Apr 1999 20:12:00 +0200

A few pieces for the reflections about colors and speech:

NEW YORK, Mar 17 (Reuters Health) -- Researchers have long wondered if Language evolves to fit the world as humans perceive it, or does it actually influence the way in which humans perceive the world.

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.

Hue and cry
                        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.