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Your language influences your colour perception

A new study indicates that native language might play a role in your perception of shapes in certain colours.

Quite often, in everyday life, we encounter situations where the language of our choice falls short of being able to explain something that we experience or perceive. There might be a certain word in your native language that doesn’t have an equivalent counterpart in another person’s native language. The ability of language to affect your perception of the world or your thoughts is broadly known as linguistic relativity. A new study could possibly have proven an inseparable link between the native language of an individual and their colour perception. However, this topic merits a little background first.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Before we begin, we would like to put in a disclaimer that Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf never officially co-authored any piece of work. Some of their work even goes against what the namesake hypothesis stands for today. The name ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis is considered a misnomer by many linguists for that reason. With that aside, let’s try to understand what this hypothesis proposes.


Edward Sapir

The idea of linguistic relativity isn’t new. From philosophers like Plato to Immanuel Kant, the connection between language and an individual’s perception of the world has been discussed and debated throughout history. The work of Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf and quite a few other researchers in this area gave rise to two distinct forms of linguistic relativity – the strong form where language determines the perception of the world, and the weak form where language influences the perception of the world. Eventually, from the 1960s through the 1980s, this view was abandoned for universalism, with proponents like Chomsky, where the commonly accepted view was that all languages held a common base structure, caused same cognitive processes in the human brain and were only different at the surface level. However, later work by George Lakoff renewed interest in Whorfianism.

New findings

In a recent paper, Martin Maier and Rasha Abdel Rahman at the Humboldt University of Berlin chose to analyse the impact of affecting visual processing at an early stage. The objective of this research was to determine whether someone is able to see a coloured shape – or isn’t.

Colour has been at the centre stage of this debate because a colour is something that is experienced universally and also something that is encoded into humans at a biological level. In general, light forms a continuous spectrum of colour for anyone perceiving it. However, it is how we divide this spectrum into smaller colour categories that determine how they perceive the world.

The study proposes that having different words for different colour groups helps in differentiating between shapes in those colours

As a part of this test, the researchers took Russian, German and Greek users to identify the differences and consistencies between languages for colour perception. There are a few interesting examples of the what makes this an interesting lot. For instance, both Greek and Russian have a native word for dark and light blue, but neither have an overarching word for blue, which is present in German. All three have a category word for green.

Why is this significant? Earlier research has shown that having a category word for anything – an object, a colour, or other experiences – leads to a faster cognitive perception of items from that category. For instance, prior studies have shown that Russian speakers are better at perceiving light and dark blue as compared to English speakers. Maier and Rahman, the researchers of the paper in question, decided to take things one step further and check if this distinctive behaviour could cause people to not perceive something entirely.

The experiment

During the study, the participants were asked to look for a grey semi-circle in a series of images. This was simply to grab their attention, where the actual objective was to understand their reaction to a series of images that contained geometric shapes of a certain colour against backgrounds of different colours. The actual critical test was about them spotting a coloured triangle and whether them spotting it varied with the changes in colour – the changes being various combinations of light and dark blue and green.

What they observed was the Greek speakers and Russian speakers were more likely to perceive a light blue triangle against a dark blue background as compared to the green counterpart, whereas no such difference was observed in German speakers.

Rather than depending on sheer verbal feedback, Rahman and Maier also checked EEG reports for tests conducted during the study to compare the brain activity of the participants. The EEG data was in line with the perception difference that was observed between the speakers from the various language groups.

While this doesn’t prove conclusively that there’s a deterministic link between language and colour perception, it seems to strongly point towards the fact that having a particular language as your native language or mother tongue does influence an involuntary, subconscious stage of colour perception and processing in the human brain.

Source: Psychological Science

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.