Monday, 13 January 2014

Blue or Green? Culture, Language and Colours

According to the linguistic relativity hypothesis, culturally shared language experiences lead to shared ways of thinking. In other words, the individual's organisation of language is influenced by the way culture organises language. Much empirical attention has been paid to the question whether language influences encoding and categorisation of experiences such as colour perception (Chiu, 2011).

Languages structure and categorise colours differently which again can affect an individual's perception of colour. Empirically, not all the studies conducted so far support the linguistic relativity hypothesis. The more recent studies, in particular, are in favour of this hypothesis and show that when an individual uses the colour terms in a certain language to describe the colours, his or her memory of the colours may be influenced by the colour terms used in the very description (Chiu, 2011).

In their cross-cultural study, Kay and Kempton asked native speakers of English and speakers of Tarahumara (spoken in northern Mexico) to judge the perceptual distance among eight colour chips of varying shades of greenish blue and blueish green. As the categories "green" and "blue" are not distinguished in the Tarahumaran language - wheras they are in English - the results showed culture-bound differences in the perceived distances between colours: English-speaking participants systematically overestimated the distances between blue and green while the Tarahumara did not. In a second study, Kay and Kempton showed that the distances reported by the English-speaking participants agreed with the Tarahumara-speaking participants once the effects of linguistic encoding had vanished by encoding each colour as "the bluer" and "the greener" one (Chiu, 2011, Kay & Kempton, 1984).

As predicted by the linguistic relativity hypthesis, the linguistic difference between green/blue and siyóname produced a difference in the perceived distance between colours. Colours near the green/blue-boundary were pushed apart by English speakers because of their concept of green and blue (Kay & Kempton, 1984).
For a discussion of the link between language, colour perception and right vs. left hemisphere see e.g. Gilbert et al. or Regier & Kay.

Chiu, C. (2011). Language and Culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(2) via
Kay, P. & Kempton, W. (1984) What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis? American Anthropologist, New Series, 86(1), 65-79
Regier, T. & Kay, P. (2009) Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(19), 439-446
Photo from Clairol ad (around 1966) via, photo of Audrey Hepburn via, photo of mousing fox by Richard Peters (Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012) via, photo of Audrey wearing "China blue" dress by Givenchy taken by Bert Stern (1963) via


  1. Thanks for posting this, amazing!

  2. Interesting and beautiful. Love the pics!

  3. Nice read, really. Excellent images. Thanks indeed!

    1. And a nice comment, I really appreciate that. Thanks!

  4. Abbie Winterburn13 January 2014 at 12:56

    Something really superly, superly interesting...

    1. Thank you for your lovely feedback, Abbie.