Proof Positive that People See Colors with the Tongue

by Henry Fountain, New York Times, D5, Tuesday, March 30, 1999

When it comes to colors, the English language is at no loss for words. Interior decorators and paint manufacturers, among others, are constantly coming up with ever more fanciful color names.

To linguists, however, all the sample chips in a paint store can be categorized by 11 English words. While one decorator's buttercup breeze may be another's desert bouquet, to a linguist they are both yellow.

But even 11 is a lot compared to the Berinmo, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers that lives along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. The berinmo language categorizes colors with just five words.

This makes the tribe a good subject for studying a linguistic concept that first gained wide currency in the 1950s. Called the linguistic relativity hypothesis, it argues that humans see the world less with their eyes than with their language. Each language filters experience differently, and thus there are no universal principles of meaning. (In the most famous explanation of the of the hypothesis, Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of its proponents, argued that an Eskimo could never have just one word for snow, because of the importance that different types of snow have for Eskimo culture."

Following the hyposthesis, if one people categorizes color differently from another, they should perceive it differently as well.


In [a recent study by three psychologists in Britain], which is described in the current issue of the journal Nature, the Berinmo were shown samples froom a standard 160-color chart and asked to categorize them. In addition to having fewer categories than English speakers, the categories are different. English speakers, for example, draw a distinction between blue and green. Berinmo do not, but they draw a distinction within what English speakers would consider yellow, with the word "nol" on one side and "wor" on the other.

The critical part of the study came when the researchers asked the Berinmo to remember colors, by showing them on sample, waiting a short time, and then asking them to match the first color from two similar alternatives. Sometimes the two choices came from within the same color category, and sometimes not.

The researchers found that the Berinmo were much better at matching colors across their "nol" and "wor" boundary than across English bule and green categories (after having been shown the blue-green distinction). And English speakers, given the same tests, were similarly good at blue-green matches and poor at matches across the Berinmo categories.

By showing that color perception is dependent upon categorization through language, the results support the idea of linguistic relativity, said one of the authors of the study, Debi Roberson of the University of London.

"Berinmo color vision is the same as ours," said Dr. Roberson, who came to know the tribe during nine months in the jungle. "If they are asked to identify a single color from a group of colors, they would do it in the same way as you our I.

"But say you have three colors, and call two of them blue and one green," she continued. "We would see them as being more similar because we call them by the same name. Our linguistic categories affect the way we perceive the world."


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