Стародубцева Елена Алексеевна

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Электронное научное издание «Труды МГТА: электронный журнал»

Стародубцева Елена Алексеевна

зав. кафедрой второго иностранного языка МГТА

кандидат педагогических наук, доцент

Язык и цветовосприятие

В статье говорится о проверке учения Берлина и Кея, которое лежит в основе теории универсального восприятия цветов и гипотезы лингвистической относительности Сепира-Уорфа, разработанной в 30-х годах прошлого века, согласно которой есть непосредственная взаимосвязь между структурой языка и мышлением, причем первая определяет мышление и как следствие способ познания реальности. Предполагается, что люди, говорящие на разных языках, по-разному воспринимают мир и по-разному мыслят. Для проверки была проведена целая серия экспериментов по сравнению восприятия цветов представителей различных культур, принципиальное отличие которых было представлено в количестве категорий цветоделения. Результаты экспериментов дают возможность сделать вывод, что четкие различия в цветовосприятии непосредственно связаны с категориями цветоделения в каждой из культур. Нельзя выделить какой-либо единый набор категорий цвета, универсальный для всех культур и независимый от их языка.

Ключевые слова: гипотеза лингвистической относительности, категоризация цветоделения, разграничение цветов.

Starodubtseva Elena A.

head of the department, MGTA,

candidate of pedagogic science, docent


Language and Colour Perception

The article shows the results of experiments the main task of which was to reveal that language influences thought and consequently affects one's perception of the world. It was demonstrated that there exists an implicit effect of language-specific terminology on human colour perception. None set of colour categories can be named universal.

Keywords: linguistic relativity hypothesis, colour categorization, discrimination of colours.

Recent evidence suggests that language may indeed influence color perception. Speakers of language with different colour names show differences in the way they perceive colours. Languages differ in the parts of the color spectrum for which they have names. For example some languages have a single name to mean both blue and green. Others can have a name for the color of dying leaves or the color of a certain shape pattern seen on cattle.

So the question is if you spoke such a language, what would happen if you looked at the rainbow. This question is primarily linked to a famous theory called the linguistic relativity hypothesis, popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism. The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view. Color perception, or more specifically, colour categorization, was an obvious choice for its investigating. Early studies showed effects of language on memory and recognition of colours. But the a major shift of opinion came with a seminal study by Berlin and Kay (A 1969 study by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay claimed to demonstrate that color terminology is subject to universal semantic constraints, and hence to discredit the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). They suggested that the basic colour terms in a language evolve over time, and that differences in the color terminologies of different languages arise from differences in evolutionary stage. All languages end up with the same 11 universal basic colour terms. So a theory of universal colour perception emerged from this study.

Some African languages provide a good opportunity for the cross-cultural study of colour perception. They use a single colour term that means both blue and green. In studies comparisons of English speakers with speakers of African languages reveal language effects. English speakers are faster than Africans when the target is blue and the distractors are green, or vise versa. However when target and distractors are in the same category (both blue or both green), English speakers are slower than Africans. In the task in which participants are shown three colours and asked to “pick the odd one out”, on the basis of similarity. English speakers tend to pick the colour that is from a different category than the other two colors, Africans tend to show no such bias because all three colours are in the same African category.

Berlin and Kay’s theory of the evolution of basic color terms has been challenged by the fact that some languages appear to have 12 such terms (1 more than Berlin and Kay’s maximum number). Russian, Greek and Turkish also give an opportunity to study the connection between language and colour perception. In these languages, the blue region is divided into two basic color terms, mainly on the basis of lightness. The languages encode light and dark blue colors using separate basic terms.

It has been well established that differences between languages in the boundaries of colour terms cause corresponding differences in categorical perception in their speakers. The term “categorical perception” is used to denote people’s propensity to make finer discriminations at the boundaries between categories than at their interiors. For instance, if a language A, like Russian, Greek or Russian, makes a lexical distinction between light blue and dark blue and language B, like English or Japanese does not, speakers of the A group are sure to make finer discriminations at the boundary between light and dark blue and speakers of language B are not.

Compared with English speakers, Turkish and Greek speakers exaggerated the differences between colours straddling the boundary between the Turkish terms mavi (“blue”) and lacivert (“dark blue”) or Greek ghalazio (“light blue”) and ble (“dark blue”) respectively. The Turkish tended to group mavi and lacivert colors separately, and the Greek tended to group ghalazio and ble separately, whereas English speakers mostly grouped these colours together. The researchers also found differences in Turkish, Greek and English speakers’ colour perception on the visual search task. Turkish and Greek speakers were faster and more accurate than English speakers in finding the target colour if the target and distractors were from different Turkish or Greek categories but the same English category [2; 4].

The study, conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, compared Russian speakers with English ones. The researchers found that Russian speakers are superior at distinguishing between the two, signifying that they do in fact see them as two different colours.

Researchers led by Jonathan Winawer gave the Russian and English speakers sets of three blue squares, two of which were similar shades with a third ‘odd one out’. After distributing the colours, the researchers asked the volunteers to identify the identical squares. Russian speakers performed the task more speedily when the two shades overlapped their boundary between goluboy and siniy than when all shades fell into one group. However, the English speakers did not show such characteristic.

Russian speakers split what the English language considers as ‘blue’ into two separate colours, called goluboy (“light blue”) and siniy (“dark blue”). The test demonstrates that it helps them view light and dark blue as two dissimilar colours.

These results show that linguistic effects indisputably do influence colour perception.

“It could be that there is a pre-existing tendency to divide colours that exists in everyone, and that Russian has exploited but English has not,” Nature magazine quoted Winawer.

“The critical difference in this case is not that English speakers cannot distinguish between light and dark blues, but rather that Russian speakers cannot avoid distinguishing them: they must do so to speak Russian in a conventional manner,” Winawer and his colleagues write.

Angela Brown, who studies colour perception at Ohio State University in Columbus, argues that the order of cause and effect could be the opposite and points out that most languages with a variety of words for blue are likely to be found at high northern latitudes [1].

Further evidence for language effects came from a study that compared speakers of English and Berinmo (a language spoken in Papua New Guinea), English and Himba (a language spoken by a cattle-herding people in South West Africa). Himba and Berinmo show similarity in its number of linguistic categories for colours. Both languages have just five basic colours, according to the criteria of Berlin and Kay. English speakers were better at discrimination of colours that crossed the blue-green boundary than those that did not. It was predictable that Berinmo speakers did not show such results as there is no a blue-green boundary in their language. Himba participants showed categorical perception only for their own categories and not for either the supposed universal categories, as occurring in English, or to those of the Berinmo language [3].

So, a series of cross-cultural studies of colour categorization have found consistent differences in a range of perceptual tasks, systematically linked to the colour categories in each culture. It might be the case that there is no single set of categories that is universal and independent of culture and language.


  1. Why spoken Russian can help perceive colours better than English. http://news.bioscholar.com/2007/05/why-spoken-russian-can-help-perceive-colours-better-than-english.html

  2. Őzgen E., Davies I.R.L. Turkish color terms. Tests of Belin and Kay’s theory of color universals and linguistic relativity. Linguistics, 36, 919-956

  3. Roberson D., Davidoff J., Davies I.R.L., Shapiro L.R. Colour Categories and Category Acquisition in Himba and English http://www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/psy/PEOPLE/roberson/ProgressInColour.pdf

Color vocabulary and pre-attentive color perception http://languagelog.ldc/upenn/edu/nll/?p=1172

Стародубцева Е.А. Язык и цветовосприятие


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