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You Only See Colors You Can Name

While color is a purely visual phenomenon, the way we see color is not only a matter of our visual systems. It is well known that we are faster in telling colors apart that have different names, but do the names determine the colors or the colors the names? Recent work shows that language has a stronger influence than previously thought.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

If and how much language shapes our thought has been the subject of many debates over the years. In the 1930s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf described a view that language determines our thinking: if we don't have a word for a concept, we cannot think about it. This was a popular view for a while, but fell out of favor in the 1960s. The pendulum then swung the other way, with researchers believing that there was no connection between language and thought, and that language was a purely abstract construct.

In the last 20 years or so, a middle ground has started to develop. While it's clear that language does not entirely determine our thinking, there is certainly an influence. The surprising thing is how deeply seated that influence can be.

Russian Blues

In their paper, Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination, Jonathan Winawer, Nathan Witthoft, Michael C. Frank, Lisa Wu, Alex R. Wade, and Lera Boroditsky looked at differences in how native English and Russian speakers distinguish shades of blue.

It turns out that there is no single word for the English "blue" in Russian. The term siniy describes what most other languages know as dark blue, while goluboy is the name for lighter blues. The question is, does that difference mean that there is a difference in color perception between Russian speakers and speakers of other languages, like English?

The test Winawer and colleagues came up with is based on the well-known fact that it is easier for us to distinguish colors that have different names. When shown a reference color and two possible matching colors, we're much faster when presented with, say, blue and orange than just two shades of orange.

The question is whether that is also true for Russian speakers and their different words for shades of blue. After all, our color names might be based on the same perceptual effects that our color perception uses to distinguish categorically different colors.

The result was that Russian speakers did indeed have an advantage over English speakers in telling siniy and goluboy apart. The authors of that paper then went on to test whether the reason was really language and not some genetic variation or similar. They had the study participants recite nonsense words (to keep their language centers busy) while performing the study, and found that under this condition, the difference went away.

It was clearly the language system interfering with a task that was presumably purely visual: distinguishing between different colors. Categories in our thinking may go much deeper than we think.

The Himba Tribe

A tribe in northern Namibia, named the Himba, have seemingly unusual names for colors. What the video embedded below (edit: no longer available, unfortunately) shows is that those names make it easier for them to see some color differences that most other people would find very difficult, whereas they have trouble telling colors apart that look quite different to most of us.

What the video unfortunately does not discuss is why they have these names for colors. There is a slight hint when one of the tribesmen describes several things that are "white," like milk and water. It seems to me that their color names do not only (or primarily) describe hue, but also function of the things whose color they name. This is a very pragmatic way of using language, and is not unlike some languages whose grammatical genders are based not on sex, but on classes of things and animals that are more specific, like large vs. small animals, plants, dead things, etc.


The impact of language and higher-level concepts on visualization is the key to understanding how visualization actually works. Abstract concepts like color, shape, size, etc. seen in isolation elicit associations and embellishments that influence what we see and how we think about it.

Caroline Ziemkiewicz's work on visual and verbal metaphors in tree visualization and the role of gravity in visualization is a case in point. Even seemingly pure and abstract depictions of data are influenced by assumptions about the world and/or the way we think about the structure of the data.

The beauty of visualization is not only its visual nature and all the complexity it brings with it, but especially the deep connections we're only discovering as we dive deeper into it.

"Color names" taken from The Doghouse Diaries, used under Creative Commons.

Posted by Robert Kosara on November 20, 2011. Filed under Perception, Language.