linguistic relativism

Linguistic Relativism and Color

I was discussing with my colleague Susan this afternoon how I've read that men are more likely to have color identification and distinction issues in part because they are culturally raised with a more limited color vocabulary - girls are encouraged to learn names for (and wear) a wider variety of colors, and so women become better able to distinguish color differences in part because of their vocabulary.  I've also read that young Western children kept away from cultural discussion of the sky as blue often label the sky as "nothing," "white," or "grey" before being taught the appropriate answer. These types of studies demonstrate that how we perceive the world is not only down to our biology but also to cultural and linguistic cues.

I decided to try to relocate another study I'd previously read about, so as to refresh my memory on the exact details and perhaps learn more.  The research focused on an indigenous people who had in their language a different color category for what in English we would call a variant of yellow-green but at the same time did not linguistically differentiate blue from green.  I remembered that I had looked at two circular grids, one having all green squares with one being very slightly different in hue and value and one having one cyan square and all the rest green squares.  The all green grid was as easily scanned and the odd one out identified by these people, while the blue and green grid was a stumper.  For Western people, the difficulties were reversed.  After a decent amount of googling, I learned the tribe was the Himba of Namibia, the two grids can be seen herea clip from a BBC documentary explaining it is here, and, if you're so interested, you can read an academic study on the topic entitled "Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba."  As you'll find out if you watch the BBC clip, the Himba also label the sky as black and rivers as white, and have a more limited color vocabulary than English speakers use. 

I also, in my research trail, learned a few other facts from various sites:

  • This overall topic is called linguistic relativism and as it applies to color, there is still some debate as to how relativistic (versus universal) color differentiation actually is. 
  • Very young sighted children are no more reliable than blind children at correctly identifying color (sometimes up until the age of four).
  • [In] languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:

1.  All languages contain terms for black and white.
2.  If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
3.  If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
4.  If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
5.  If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
6.  If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
7.  If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or gray.

I am fascinated and somewhat alarmed by the thought that English is holding me back from the world of green that the Himba and Koreans get to experience.  I've wished for the mantis shrimp's color spectrum vision and ultraviolet perception in the past, but perhaps I don't even need more rods and cones - perhaps all I need is new words.  Though since the brain stops developing around age 26, it sadly might already be too late for me.