Color Perception. Is Whorf right? Do color terms affect color perception?

Term Paper, 2011

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The debate of language and perception – nature versus nurture
2.1. CONTRA Whorf – universalists point of view
2.1.1. Berinmo Color Naming System
2.1.2. Well-formedness
2.2. PRO Whorf – relativity point of view
2.2.1. Wiggle rooms
2.2.2. Perception and the visual field

3. Consequences for language teaching in class

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

Colors are everywhere. One sees them, recognizes them, defines them, and talks about them. But what are “colors” and how can it be possible that one is able to talk about them? How are the relations between language and perception, if color naming varies across different languages? Those are questions which has not been completely solved yet but caused great discussions between linguistic universals and linguistics relativity.

Color definition does differ across language; at least this is for sure. An obvious example is the difference between English and German which one can discover easily. In German it is distinguished nicely between “rosa” and “pink”, if somebody from the USA instead sees a color which Germans define as “rosa” he or she will claim that the shown color is simply “pink”. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the definition of color is not as easy as it seems on the first view. Clearly defined colors as red or green of traffic lights will not cause any discussion - at least not between trichromats who are not color blind and originate from the same culture. As soon as it comes to colors like green and yellow the tide turns: who decides when a greenish yellow becomes green or a yellowish green becomes yellow? And how can discussions like the following be solved – if at all: a father defines the socks he wears as black, which seem bluish-gray to the daughter and the mother defines them as anthracite. Who is right? Will the father’s friend be able to solve this situation, even if he has never heard of a color term called “anthracite”, because he does not have a wife at all who could have taught him this term, which seems to be much unknown in society, especially in men-society?

One can see how different color perception seems to be, even across different families.

Additionally, there will be even heavier discussions when we choose an intercultural comparison: out in the world there are languages which do not even distinguish between yellow and green or black, gray, and blue. For people from other cultures with different native languages the task to learn the other’s color categorization is, as experiments by Davidoff and colleagues have shown sometimes very difficult [comp. Davidoff 1999]. How can that be and what is responsible for such differences in color perception? Does this phenomenon have anything to do with culture and different ways of life? Or is it simply overrated that in some languages colors, which are determined as two, three or even more colors in English, are put together into one large color category in other languages? To add on, what about some languages which only discriminate light, dark and color? Could it be that at root all languages have a universal basic and color perception shapes each language? Or is it the other way round and languages as well as culture are responsible for the way humans concept color?

In the 1950’s and 60’s the relativity hypothesis, which also Mr. Benjamin Whorf supported, was very plausible to some researchers. Since it was “known that different language had color terms that segment the color spectrum at different places” [Stated by Stanford], it seemed obviously possible to them that color perception was determined by language.

On the other pole, there was the universalist view, which was widespread as well. The universalists hold, that there is no relation between languages in a way that language shapes color perception, more over they claim that it is the other way round.

No matter which opinion people had, the point was that it always was either the one or the other and so a lot of discussions came up. Over time, discussions and researches went on and one found out that the question’s solution was not that simple.

In this research paper several tests, researches, and recent data will be presented and compared. Different researchers will be introduced and universalists will be supported and challenged as well as the relativity point of view. Furthermore, a conclusion will be drawn from the analyzed material and an answer to the question if Whorf was right in his idea that color perception is affected by semantic terms of native language, will be given in the end.

2. The debate of language and perception – nature versus nurture

The relation of language and perception has been discussed for a while and an end of this discussion and a real solution of the problem has not been found yet. The debate goes on and on, day after day, year after year.

On the one pole there are the universalists who hold that color categories are universally grouped together around universal six focal colors which are in English white, black, green, red, yellow and blue. As found by Eleanor Rosch those colors are easier and more accurately remembered by language learners than other colors; the color memory seemed to be privileged for focal colors in every language. In other words, this could mean that there exists a universal basis, a repertoire for color naming, thought and memory. To clarify this point, findings like this leads to the assumption that no matter which culture one belongs to or which language is the native language, the perception of color is always the same; color perception shapes language.

Comparing color boundaries of Berinmo, a very old language spoken in Papua-New Guinea, with color categories of other languages of the World-Color-System by using a constructed rotating system (which will be explained in detail later) Kay & Regier found out that not just the connectedness of color categories but also the location of color categories in different languages seemed to be universal. Furthermore, Indsey & Brown claimed that every human would define colors like red, orange and yellow as warm and colors like blue and green as cold, no matter if they speak Chinese, Himba or English.

Challenged is this idea about color perception by the relativity view. Linguistic relativity holds that culture and language certainly have an effect on color perception and that it is shaped by language and semantic categories of the native language. Analyzing the Berinmo System, some researchers discovered specific differences across languages which cannot be explained by universal assumption. Additionally, Debi Robertson and colleagues failed to replicate Rosch’s results of focal colors and color memorization by comparing Berinmo, English and Himba: “no evidence was found for a limited set of universal basic color categories” [Regier 2009].

Furthermore, they found color category boundaries which vary from language to language. Debi Robertson discovered that “color categories are formed from boundary demarcation based predominantly on language”. Undoubtly, these findings caused a reinforcement of the debate. Linguistic relativists started questioning the universalists view in both color cognition and color naming. The only universal term they accepted and acknowledged was the tendency of “grouping by similarity”, a principle that describes the tendency to name similar colors in the same way.

The Whorf hypothesis, which came up in 1950, claimed “that language is not simply a way of voicing ideas, but is the very thing which shapes those ideas” and therefore “one cannot think outside the confines of their language.” [ Barte 2007]

In other words, this means that in the world many different world views by many different speakers of different languages must exist. Every aspect of every culture has an impact on the spoken native language. An often given example for this would be the Eskimos who have a lot of different words for snow.

Gibert and collegues conducted several experiments to prove this relative point of view. By analyzing their test results, which will be presented later in this paper, they found out that language does affect color perception in the right visual field.

Additionally, Franklin and colleagues compared infant and adult performances on visual search tasks and came to the conclusion that the ability of color perception must move from the left visual field to the right visual field, which supports the idea that language, which is placed in the right hemisphere of brain, and color perception must have something to do with each other. Further tests showed also that infants who had already acquired color terms, so called “namers” showed color perception in the right visual field while so called “learners”, who have not acquired color terms yet, displayed color perception in the left visual field [Regier 2009].

Anyway, none of the presented hypothesis was able to establish itself completely. The debate goes on but the correct answer must be anywhere in between the two hypothesis. Researchers found out that both the universalists and relativity view are half true and half right.

2.1 CONTRA Whorf – universalists point of view

1972 Eleanor Rosch did some research and found out that color categories were organized around focal colors. Furthermore, color memory appeared to be privileged for those colors in every language [Regier 2009]. For many years this assumption was clearly thought to be true. Undoubtly, color perception as such and intellectual reflection are unable to be taught to humans. Hence, color perception seems natural to be universal.

Later several tests and researches were done to prove this point of view.

2.1. 1. Berinmo Color Naming System

If color naming across languages is really shaped by the “universal structure of perceptual color space” [Kay 2005], then traces of the same structure must be found in every language. In other words, if universal constraints on cross-language color naming exist, different language color systems compared with each other, should in a way all look the same. To prove this idea, researchers like Paul Kay, Brent Berlin, and Terry Regier started to compare the boundaries of color category from different languages.

The first idea was to compare the color system of a very old language with that of a very modern language. If those systems of absolutely different cultures equaled each other, it could be assumed that color perception and naming was not influenced by native language. They chose English and Berinmo, a language spoken by a native tribe of Papua-New Guinea.

Comparing English and Berinmo, it is easy to see that there are definitely similarities. Although Berinmo only distinguishes between five different colors, compared to the seven different categories of English, one can see that the main distinction is the same.

To compare the data on Figure below, it has to be explained that each colored region stays for one color category. The given names are printed into each color. Furthermore, the horizontal axes describes the hue of color, the vertical axes the lightness of color. The dots seen in the English color system are the focal colors, for example red as traffic light. Numbers in the Berinmo system show how many people (out of 40) described this color as the color which best represents the color category [comp. Regier 2007].

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Image: Davidoff 1999)

In Berinmo there is only one big term for red color: “mehi”, in English instead, one discriminates “pink” and “red”. Nonetheless, a correspondence can be identified. “Yellow” and what an English person would call “greenish yellow”, “orange” and “brownish orange” are combined as “wor” in Berinmo. All bluish colors as “green”, “blue” and “purple” are named “nol”.


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Color Perception. Is Whorf right? Do color terms affect color perception?
University of Kassel
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color, perception, whorf
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Melissa Grönebaum (Author), 2011, Color Perception. Is Whorf right? Do color terms affect color perception?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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