What color are these strawberries? Professor and visual illusionist Akiyoshi Kitaoka provides this mind-bending image. Read more about it here
by Aditi Mishra – All living beings must sense their environments. In order to do so, many of them possess sophisticated sensors (eyes being one of them) and a brain to process the stimulus gathered; humans are no different.
However, the brain is not just a command centre directing what to do next based on the stimulus gathered. It also tells us what we should pay attention to, and what we can ignore. It powerfully determines what should be attended to and what should be ignored into the background. In simpler terms, what we see is not at all objective. Our perception is driven by what our brain decides to focus on.
Here is where things get interesting. All human beings are born naïve with no understanding of the world. Culture and language are very important tools in understanding the unknown. But are they simply tools aiding exploration? Or do they bias our understanding as well? There is some evidence that language might be literally colouring our visual experiences.
How we perceive colours has baffled humans for hundreds of years. Some believe that since we are better adapted to see certain wavelengths, there must be certain colours that all of us can see (not necessarily primary colours, example: black). Another concept, Linguistic preference, says that the inherent nature of languages – their vocabulary and grammar – influence how we think and how we perceive the world. By extension, the language we speak can influence the colours we see.
Studies show that people are better at recalling colours and discriminating between colours when they speak a language that has names for the colours under consideration. The claim is that language functions as an attention directing mechanism. So, if you have a word for a colour you are more likely to remember and differentiate it. Now, to test this hypothesis we would require speakers of languages with different ways of classifying colours, and the language Berinmo spoken in New Guinea provides us with this opportunity.
In the Berinmo language colours are classified as nol (meaning live, it can be used for green, yellow, blue, and purple) and wor (meaning leaves ready to fall, encompassing khaki, brown, yellow and orange). In a study, English speakers were better at discriminating blue from green, correlating with colour boundaries in English, than Bernimo speakers, who were better at distinguishing nol from wor [example: greenish-yellow from orangish-yellow].
So what happens when we learn a new language? It seems that categorization of colours is malleable to change as people learn new languages. When in life they learn it, and how much they use each language, affects this.
In a study (Pav & Berlin-kay, 2016), monolingual Russian speakers pointed out different types of blues more often as compared to bilingual or English speakers observing the same paintings. This can be correlated with the fact that Russian has the words sinij for dark/navy blue and goluboj for light/skyblue as opposed English which simply adds modifiers like light or dark to ‘blue’.
Closer home, the Indian language Hindi doesn’t have any term for the colour grey so how would a monolingual Hindi speaker process grey?
So, it seems that the languages we speak do affect how well we perceive our colours. What does it imply? What about animals without languages with names for colours? Does language affect other senses too? There is some evidence that speakers of languages with ambiguous terms, or no terms, for left and right fare worse in spatial ability2. Since most major languages don’t encode names for smells, does that mean that language might not affect how we smell? So, a rose might look different to people speaking different languages but smell exactly the same?
Does a rose by any other name smell equally sweet?
Pav, T. A., & Berlin-kay, T. (2016). Communicative relevance : Color references in bilingual and trilingual speakers ∗. http://doi.org/10.1017/S1366728916000535