Do we perceive colors differently depending on the language we speak?

Life is a raffle of light and color, as the song says. When we open our eyes, a world tinged with infinite colors appears immediately before us. But they are not a mere decoration of our visual world: they allow us to identify objects, materials and substances in our environment. In addition, they facilitate communication with others. We can tell one ripe banana from another green. Or ask a store for a size forty of the red shoes on display.

the name of the rose

Although the number of chromatic nuances that we can perceive is enormous, the communicative function of colors favors the use of a limited number of words referring to them. This phenomenon is known as color categorization, i.e. the grouping of shades into the same category associated with a word: green, red, blue, pink

This is a sign that the color world, like many other aspects of perception, can be affected by cultural influences and our learning experiences.

The snows of the Eskimos

Surely you have read that the Eskimos are able to discriminate between many different types of snow thanks to the fact that they have dozens of terms in their language (the Inuit) to designate this physical state of water. It is, however, a pseudo-scientific myth popularized in the first half of the 20th century by the linguist Benjamin Whorf.

Whorf was a strong advocate that the language we learn dramatically affects how we perceive, remember and think about the world, a hypothesis called linguistic determinism.

In fact, the Inuit language has only four basic words for snow, from which a few others are derived. In Spanish, for example, we only have one term for snowbut by joining other words, you can also distinguish between different states of it, such as melted snow, powder, spring snow oh hard snow. Thus, Spanish-speaking skiers do not need to learn the Inuit language to be able to perceive and communicate all these gradations of snow.

How we pack colors

Can we then exclude that our mother tongue influences our color perception? The way we group them into categories has been a very active testing ground for testing the hypothesis of linguistic determinism.

The classic study of anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969) It was a very important contribution in this area. These authors studied the words to denominate the colors in a hundred languages ​​of the whole world and observed that the chromatic terms were not distributed arbitrarily between the languages, but according to a predictable hierarchy. If a language has only two color words, then these are black and white. If you have three, they will be white, black, and red. With five terms, green and yellow are added to the previous ones. And so on.

In short, contrary to the hypothesis of linguistic relativity, we find a universal pattern that revolves around the six basic colors proposed by the theories of color perception: white, black, blue, yellow, green and red. .

The six basic colors: black, green, red, blue, yellow and white.
Shutterstock / Lewis Tse

How blue is the blue of the sky?

In Spanish, as in English, we have only one basic term to designate the bluish colors. However, in languages ​​such as Russian, Greek or Turkish, they have different words for light – or light blue – and dark tone. For example, in Greek the terms are ghalatio (light blue) and wheat (Dark blue).

For Greeks, Russians and Turks, light blue and dark blue are different colors.
Shutterstock / Vector_Up

various studies showed that speakers of these languages ​​differentiate between light and dark blue more quickly and reliably. Moreover, they exaggerate the differences in perception between the intermediate hues compared to speakers of English or Spanish, as if they were more colors. far for them.

Other similar results with multiple chromatic categories allow us to conclude that the packaging that each language does to name colors influences the way they are perceived and remembered by their speakers.

Let’s see how we talk?

The ace recent search show that indeed there is some impact of mother tongue on color processing. However, this relativism is far from the resounding linguistic determinism proposed by Whorf.

In fact, with a quick practice, anyone can expand their color vocabulary and easily learn to distinguish between different shades of blue or any other color, such as several studies They showed. In the same way, even people unfamiliar with snow subtypes can learn to discriminate and name them, as Eskimos or skiers do.

Interestingly, in a work with Greek speakers who had lived in the UK for a long time, they were found to be more likely to sound like the ghalatio and the wheat by the influence of the English language which, as we have seen, brings them together in a single linguistic category.

In short, the flexibility of our perceptual system allows us to adapt to the environment in an adaptive way to continue enjoying the raffle of light and color.

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