In this blog post, written as part of PB101 Foundations of Psychological Science, undergraduate student Rosella Pang writes about language and colour perception.
There’s an old saying that “the world isn’t black and white”. Well, what if it is? If the only two words in your vocabulary to describe colour is black and white, what would the world look like?
Language is more than a string of words—it also serves as the medium that we use to understand the world we live in. It influences every domain of our lives. One notable domain is colour perception or, rather, each person’s unique experience of colour. Although everyone can see the full visual spectrum of colour, the way that incoming information related to colour is processed and sorted varies from person to person.
The most distinct characteristic of the relationship between language and colour perception is that both are constantly shaped by the environment. The changes in the language we use and the colours we perceive can help us become better adapted to our societies around us. In the sections below, we will examine some of the outside forces that lead to the modification of language and perception.
Colour categorisation depends on situational needs
Let’s stop and think about a hidden factor at play here: situation. We equip ourselves with the knowledge that we need to survive in our current environment. For instance, we wouldn’t familiarise ourselves with ballet techniques if we weren’t planning to dance. Our knowledge of colour is no different.
To explain the difference in colour perception in cultures, we’ll examine the question of why it would be helpful to be able to distinguish between, say, burgundy and maroon. Gibson and Conway hypothesised that the answer is because “differences in colour categorization between languages are caused by differences in overall usefulness of colour to a culture” (Gibson et al., 2017). To test their hypothesis, Gibson and Conway looked into the effects of industrialisation and its creation of artificially-coloured objects (Gibson et al., 2017). Industrialisation started the mass production of products that are identical in all other areas besides colour (Zorich, 2017).
This is not the case in nature as colour will never be the only difference between two organisms. Contrasting these two environments suggests that industrialised societies would need to use more colour terms to communicate than societies that haven’t undergone industrialisation.
To examine the usage of colour as descriptors, Gibson and Conway studied how the Tsimane, a group of hunter-gatherers from the Amazon, described objects familiar to them versus those that were unfamiliar. They found that the Tsimane were “less likely to use colour terms when describing familiar objects” because it is not useful in communicating meaning (Gibson et al., 2017). If I were to ask you for your phone, you would know exactly what I’m talking about; it wouldn’t help if I asked for your blue phone, so I wouldn’t bother adding the description of colour. The same logic applies for the Tsimane: having colour as a descriptor doesn’t help them get their point across and therefore is not used often. Unsurprisingly, the Tsimane have fewer colour categories than English. They simply do not need to describe colour in much detail.
The situation of the Tsimane is different from that of an industrialised society. This difference is reflected in the use of language to describe colour and, consequently, in the perception of colour. Language and colour perception are adapted to our situational needs.
Bilingualism and its effect on colour perception
Bilingualism, or the ability to speak two languages, poses an interesting question for the relationship between language and colour perception: if two languages categorise the colour spectrum differently, how does the person perceive colour? Professor Athansopoulos tried to answer that by studying Greek and English bilingualism in a population that learned Greek as their first language and then English as their second. He identified one specific distinction between English and Greek; what English speakers would call blue is actually, in Greek, two different colours: ble and ghalazio. With that distinction in mind, he wanted to explore how bilingualism could change the colour categorisation (Athanasopoulous, 2009).
What’s really changing here is our semantic memory of vocabulary. Semantic memory is the archive of information that we hold about the world.
Pop quiz: who is the current president of the United States? The answer that popped into your head is part of your semantic memory; it is one of the many facts that you remember about your environment. Learning a new language, however, could change that. No language is a direct translation of another, so converting your knowledge from one language to another could result in a change in understanding.
Indeed, this study found that “semantic memory for specific colour terms is strongly linked to the way Greek–English bilinguals perceived the ble/ghalazio distinction” (Athanasopoulous, 2009). A change in their semantic memory of colour vocabulary means that, instead of identifying colours in Greek as ble or ghalazio, they would mentally group these colours in the same category in English: blue. By mentally grouping ble/ghalazio as one, thereby changing perception, the differentiation between them becomes less clear.
Not only did the Greek-English bilinguals demonstrate that bilingualism could in fact change the way we see colour, but also that our perception of colour is flexible. Imagine it as a software update for your mind. As we learn and gain new experiences, our colour perception keeps up to date with the newest information and helps us adapt and improve our performance according to our knowledge.
The true colours behind language and perception
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they perceive colour. Our colour perception is an ever-changing reflection of our experiences and of the world itself. Industrialisation and bilingualism are examples of that.
Think of yourself as a detective, and colour perception as a clue. To get you started, let’s go back to the expression that “the world isn’t black and white”. What does it mean? It is a figurative expression that there is no clear distinction between right or wrong. In this context, the colours black and white symbolises right and wrong. Colour can be used as a symbol to reflect cultural values.
To quote Sherlock Holmes, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes” (Doyle, 2001). Phrases like “I’m feeling blue” and “show your true colours” are often heard without anyone pondering their implications. Colours are indicators of culture and experience and can be used to decipher a world from another pair of eyes. So look closer, what can you see?
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