SEP 26, 2017 4:41 AM PDT

How Language Describes Color Differences

While the eye can take in hundreds of thousands of different shades and colors and the brain can process them, noting even small differences in shades, the way language is used to describe color varies depending on what native language is spoken.

In some dialects there can be as few as three or four words to describe shades and colors, but in other cultures there are several different categories, with specific words for all the different hues. In a new study from MIT, cognitive scientists looked at how different speakers described colors on the spectrum and found a pattern across 100 different languages.

In language, colors along the spectrum are often described differently depending on where on the range they fall. Warmer colors, like orange, red and yellow a new study, MIT cognitive scientists have found that languages tend to divide the “warm” part of the color spectrum into more color words, such as orange, yellow, and red, are described with many more words and categories, than the blues and greens that are on the “cooler” parts of the spectrum. First author of the study, Edward Gibson, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT explained his research, stating, “When we look at it, it turns out it’s the same across every language that we studied. Every language has this amazing similar ordering of colors, so that reds are more consistently communicated than greens or blues. What this means is that human languages divide that space in a skewed way. In all languages, people preferentially bring color words into the warmer parts of the space and they don’t bring them into the cooler colors.”

A possible explanation for this could be that warmer colors tend to be more obvious, such as a red rose that springs out of a bunch of green stems. The red color is more noticeable, whereas blues and greens tend to be background colors. Gibson first became aware of the differences in how colors are defined with more or less words and descriptors when he came across a study of the Tsimane’ people who belong to a tribe that lives in the thick remote jungle of Bolivia. In this tribe, there are common and consistent words in the Tsimane’ language for colors like red, black or white, but among members of the tribe, describing and naming other shades on the spectrum like greens or blues is less standardized.

When the team at MIT looked at other languages, they found much the same trend. They took color chips with 80 shades along the spectrum and asked the Tsimane’ people to name or describe the colors. When that data had been collected, they developed what is called an “information technique” to quantify how consistently a color was described both across different languages and within the same language group. This factor was called “surprisal.” The more consistently a shade was described, the lower the surprisal factor. Blues and greens were high on the surprisal scale since across Spanish, English and Tsimane’ there was very little consistency in these cooler colors. In contrast, the exact opposite was found with warmer colors, with a high level of consistent descriptors of reds and yellows. This pattern continued across 100 other languages as well, based on data the team pulled from the World Color Survey.

The research suggests that these consistency factors might be due to the fast that warmer colors are perceived by the brain as being more obvious and are found more in the foreground of pictures and examples, where the cooler blues and greens tend to be in the background and not as noticeable. Gibson hopes to expand the research into different climates, to see if those environments differ with what’s in the background and what is perceived and described with more variety. Understanding how the brain processes color, especially among different cultures and in different languages could add some scientific weight to a concept that is sometimes seen as very subjective. If patterns across cultures and language develop, then it can be inferred that color perception is a function of the brain and not just a preference or opinion

The video below has more information, check it out.

Sources: MIT, The Boston Globe, The World Color Survey, PNAS 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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