What Color Is That? The Answer Depends On the Language You Speak

Color has long been one of the battlegrounds in psycholinguistics — this dates back to 1969 or earlier, when Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution was published and struck what appeared to be a deathblow to the idea that the language a person speaks affects how that person thinks (known as linguistic relativity). But over forty years later, color is still a hot topic.

Categorical perception is the idea that perception is affected by the categories that are present in a language. When discussing color, this is critical. For example, we have 11 basic color terms in English, and a single word for the color blue. However, in Russian there are 12 basic terms, and two words that bisect the color space that we call ‘blue’. They have siniy, which corresponds to a darker blue, and goluboy, which corresponds to a lighter blue. Greek also has two words for blue. Korean has 15 basic color terms. These are examples of the different categories of color that are embedded in language.

It turns out that there are cognitive repercussions of long-term use of these different color categories. By using a timed color discrimination task, researchers showed that Russian speakers do actually think about color differently to English speakers (in short, they were able to distinguish between colors that crossed the siniy / goluboy boundary much more quickly, providing evidence that language has a direct effect on perception – a cognitive process once considered to be totally dissociable from language).

Another study suggested that the truth is even more complicated. This study looked at the hemispheric lateralization of categorical color perception and linguistic effects on it. Because language is primarily processed in the left side of the brain, and each visual hemifield is perceived by the contralateral cerebral hemisphere (i.e. the right side of the brain receives information from the left optic nerve), the authors reasoned that color perception in the right visual hemifield might be more affected by language than that in the left visual hemifield. Their results confirmed their hypothesis, showing that the functional organization of the brain plays a role when it comes to linguistic mediation of perception.

Several other studies since then have confirmed this idea, proving that perceptual processes are indeed affected by the categories present in one’s language. Exactly how these seemingly disparate cognitive processes are related and to what extent they interact with each other is yet to be determined, but one thing is clear: language plays a very significant role in how the brain works, especially in the left hemisphere. How this affects the rest of the brain remains to be seen.


Drivonikou, G., Kay, P., Regier, T., Ivry, R., Gilbert, A., Franklin, A., & Davies, I. (2007). Further evidence that Whorfian effects are stronger in the right visual field than the left Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (3), 1097-1102 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0610132104

Gilbert AL, Regier T, Kay P, & Ivry RB (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (2), 489-94 PMID: 16387848
Roberson, D., Hyensou Pak, J., & Hanley, R. (2008). Categorical perception of colour in the left and right visual field is verbally mediated: Evidence from Korean. Cognition, 107, 752–762. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.09.001

Winawer J, Witthoft N, Frank MC, Wu L, Wade AR, & Boroditsky L (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (19), 7780-5 PMID: 17470790

Image via PeterPhoto123 / Shutterstock.

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at www.dannalbright.com or on Twitter at @dann_albright.
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