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 (linked here for people reading this in their newsreaders) 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.

14 responses to “You Only See Colors You Can Name”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Meaningless statement: “It turns out that there is no word for “blue” in Russian. ”

    How about: “There is no single word in Russian that corresponds to the English word ‘blue’.”

  2. Derek Avatar

    I think it’s fair to say Russian lacks “blue” the same way Emglish lacks a word for… that hue of which red and pink are two examples. How do people who speak languages that do not (yet) distinguish between red and pink do, compared to English speakers who have the two words?

    I say “yet” because English only acquired the word “pink” in the seventeenth century, naming the colour after the flower. “Orange” and I think “violet” come in about the same time, named after the fruit and the flower, respectively.

    I’ve often thought we need a pithier single word in English for baby blue or sky blue, to replace the lame “blue modified by an adjective”.

    1. joyce Avatar

      isn’t there a word called “magenta”?

  3. Jakob Avatar

    Robert, I really appreciate how you promote insight from other disciplines to improve the field of visualization. I commend you for it!

    And yet, as a semanticist let me tell you that visualization as a field has only just begun to reach out in earnest to other disciplines. Quite frankly, the color perception research has been among the most influential data in semantics since the 70s!

    Yes, categories go much, much deeper than what you even hint at in your blog post. There is so much more work to be read about categorical perception that could inform design choices. In fact, conflating the Sapir-Whorf debate with theories of the lexicon (that’s the linguistic discipline dealing with how language entries and categories are stored in the brain) is rather unhelpful to that end.

    Speaking of color terms: color terms are not alike. Some colors are basal categories and others derivational subentries to that basal category. What constitutes a basal category is language specific and influences the way the derivational categories are perceived. It just so happens that English has 6 categories unlike other languages that have more or make do with just two (“light/dark” which is not the same as black/white, because red is then a subentry to “light”). Japanese has long before the Boroditsky paper been famous for placing blue and green in one category! And yet, when you show a nonmetrosexual English male a mauve mallow (note that the name for the color is derivational of an object prototypically sporting the hue – if you know french it’s more obvious) he is very well able to recognize it, even if he is much less able to distinguish it from other subcolors of the same category than to distinguish between categories.

    Before I rant on about how words and concepts are different entities (you can express concepts for which your language does not have a word!) I’ll just end with the conclusion: there is a great deal of interdisciplinary potential that is still untapped.

  4. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    It’s not meaningless, but I agree that it wasn’t as clear as it could be. I’ve fixed it.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The colour blind do not necessarily differ in their descriptions or names of “colours”. The “colours of the rainbow” are all there but not in the same width or depth. It is strange. My red is brown, I am told.

  6. Josef Fruehwald Avatar
    Josef Fruehwald

    It could only interesting to ask why the Himba language divides up the color spectrum the way it does if it would be equally interesting and informative to ask the same question about English. But then, informative to what end?

    This is where some people take the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and depart sharply from linguistic and psychological research, and instead try to figure out how linguistic structures are actually reflections of the fundamental nature of a culture. Typically, these attempts are over-simplistic, and suspiciously re-enforce the stereotypes which pre-existed the linguistic “evidence”.

    You, in fact, did not say that the *Himba people* are pragmatically concerned with the function of things, which is good. For most people, though, the distinction between a language and the people who speak it is not a very clear one, and I’m concerned that your proposal is easily misread as a cultural or racial generalization, which would be unfounded.

  7. Florian Avatar

    Note that the Doghouse Diaries comic strip that you’ve used in the topic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License, so please make sure to attribute it correctly. See

    1. Robert Kosara Avatar

      I know, it’s at the end of the posting, before the comments.

  8. […] further in this post on Psych 256 (with references, which I haven’t provided here) and on a 2011 post on the blog […]

  9. Kari Clausner Avatar
    Kari Clausner

    I found it interesting that you posted a picture saying that girls will have a higher color vocabulary than guys because this obviously shows that you play into gender roles or stereotypes. I believe that both girls and guys can have a low or high color vocabulary based on how they are raised. I also did not know that Russian language had no general word for the basic color “blue” but they named blue by lighter and darker shades of the English color “blue”.

  10. Ana_Maria Rotaru Avatar
    Ana_Maria Rotaru

    1. A very interesting topic!
    2. Russians have 3 names for blue eyes.Maybe a native speaker can explain more. For light blue eyes they use either “golubye” or “serye” tha latter meaning greysh light blue. For deep blue eyes they use “sinie”, especially in poems or fairy tales. 9Mention must be made that I am a Romanian speaker).
    3. I was very amazed when I learned the word “bluebell” since I saw this flower was purple.(In Romanian the term is violet or mauve like in French). Then I read that , initially, English speakers did not possess another word for the real colour of the respective flower.

  11. William Avatar

    I guess I am a girl i say all the real names

  12. Keldon Alleyne (@KeldonAlleyne) Avatar

    Having names for colours simply allows us to form a map to differentiate between colours when we have a choice. I mean, if you only have three labels, red, green and blue, you can’t really label any other colours. That doesn’t mean you can see the difference between red and orange, you just don’t have a name.

    The idea that names are required presumes it is the label itself that trains the brain to improve differentiation of hues rather than the inherent learning from spending time training to identify the differences between colours.

    So I would like to see a test showing what happens when you attempt to train someone to differentiate colours by giving them the choice of being equal to one of two colours, or how far in between the colours the compared colour sits.