I have blogged extensively earlier regarding language, color and the sapir -whorf hypothesis. My position in the above is clear, I lean towards the sapir-whorf hypothesis and a mild form of linguistic determinism. Now a new study (which I had missed earlier) by Lera Boroditsky presents further corroborating evidence that language influences even such basic functions as color perception. As per their 2007 PNAS paper, Russians are better (more speedily) able to distinguish between the light blue and dark blue color in an objective color perception task, thanks to the fact that Russian has a different color term for dark blue and a different one for the light blue. It is an excellent paper and I present some excerpts from the introduction:
Different languages divide color space differently. For example,the English term ‘‘blue’’ can be used to describe all of the colors in Fig. 1. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (‘‘goluboy’’) and darker blues (‘‘siniy’’). Like other basic color words, ‘‘siniy’’ and ‘‘goluboy’’ tend to be learned early by Russian children (1) and share many of the usage and behavioral properties of other basic color words (2). There is no single generic word for ‘‘blue’’ in Russian that can be used to describe all of the colors in Fig. 1 (nor to adequately translate the title of this work from English to Russian). Does this difference between languages lead to differences in how people discriminate colors?
The question of cross-linguistic differences in color perception has a long and venerable history (e.g., refs. 3–14) and has been a cornerstone issue in the debate on whether and how much language shapes thinking (15). Previous studies have found cross-linguistic differences in subjective color similarity judgments and color confusability in memory (4, 5, 10, 12, 16). For example, if two colors are called by the same name in a language, speakers of that language will judge the two colors to be more similar and will be more likely to confuse them in memory compared with people whose language assigns different names to the two colors. These cross-linguistic differences develop early in children, and their emergence has been shown to coincide with the acquisition of color terms (17). Further, cross-linguistic differences in similarity judgments and recognition memory can be disrupted by direct verbal interference (13, 18) or by indirectly preventing subjects from using their normal naming strategies (10), suggesting that linguistic representations are involved online in these kinds of color judgments.
Because previous cross-linguistic comparisons have relied on memory procedures or subjective judgments, the question of whether language affects objective color discrimination performance has remained. Studies testing only color memory leave open the possibility that, when subjects make perceptual discriminations among stimuli that can all be viewed at the same time, language may have no influence. In studies measuring subjective similarity, it is possible that any language-congruent bias results from a conscious, strategic decision on the part of the subject (19). Thus, such methods leave open the question of whether subjects’ normal ability to discriminate colors in an objective procedure is altered by language.
Here we measure color discrimination performance in two language groups in a simple, objective, perceptual task. Subjects were simultaneously shown three color squares arranged in a triad (see Fig. 1) and were asked to say which of the bottom two color squares was perceptually identical to the square on top.
This design combined the advantages of previous tasks in a way that allowed us to test for the effects of language on color perception in an objective task, with an implicit measure and minimal memory demands.
First, the task was objective in that subjects were asked to provide the correct answer to an unambiguous question, which they did with high accuracy. This feature of the design addressed the possibility that subjects rely only on linguistic representations when faced with an ambiguous task that requires a subjective judgment. If linguistic representations are only used to make subjective judgments in ambiguous tasks, then effects of language should not show up in an objective unambiguous task with a clear correct answer.
Second, all stimuli involved in a perceptual decision (in this case, the three color squares) were present on the screen simultaneously and remained in full view until the subjects responded. This allowed subjects to make their decisions in the presence of the perceptual stimulus and with minimal memory demands.
Finally, we used the implicit measure of reaction time, a subtle aspect of behavior that subjects do not generally modulate explicitly. Although subjects may decide to bias their decisions in choosing between two options in an ambiguous task, it is unlikely that they explicitly decide to take a little longer in responding in some trials than in others.
In summary, this design allowed us to test subjects’ discrimination performance of a simple, objective perceptual task. Further, by asking subjects to perform these perceptual discriminations with and without verbal interference, we are able to ask whether any cross-linguistic differences in color discrimination depend on the online involvement of language in the course of the task.
The questions asked here are as follows. Are there crosslinguistic differences in color discrimination even for simple, objective, perceptual discrimination tasks? If so, do these differences depend on the online involvement of language? Previous studies with English speakers have demonstrated that verbal interference changes English speakers’ performance in speeded color discrimination (21) and in visual searching (22, 23) across the English blue/green boundary. If a color boundary is present in one language but not another, will the two language groups differ in their perceptual discrimination performance across that boundary? Further, will verbal interference affect only the performance of the language group that makes this linguistic distinction?
They then go on to discuss their experimental setup (which I recommend you go and read). Finally they present their findings:
We found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors if they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than if the two colors were from the same category (both siniy or both goluboy). This category advantage was eliminated by a verbal, but not a spatial, dual task. Further, effects of language were most pronounced on more difficult, finer discriminations. English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage under any condition. These results demonstrate that categories in language can affect performance of basic perceptual color discrimination tasks. Further, they show that the effect of language is online, because it is disrupted by verbal interference. Finally, they show that color discrimination performance differs across language groups as a function of what perceptual distinctions are habitually made in a particular language.
They end on a philosophical note:
The Whorfian question is often interpreted as a question of whether language affects nonlinguistic processes. Putting the question in this way presupposes that linguistic and nonlinguistic processes are highly dissociated in normal human cognition, such that many tasks are accomplished without the involvement of language. A different approach to the Whorfian question would be to ask the extent to which linguistic processes are normally involved when people engage in all kinds of seemingly nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., simple perceptual discriminations that can be accomplished in the absence of language). Our results suggest that linguistic representations normally meddle in even surprisingly simple objective perceptual decisions.
To me this is another important paper that puts sapir-whorf hypothesis on the forefront. I would love to hear from those who do not endorse the spair-whorf hypothesis as to what they make of these results?
hat tip: Neuroanthropology blog.