My red is your red. Or is it?
May 26, 2005
Special to World Science
Do all people see and recognize the same colors? Different scientists see the issue oppositely, and two new studies are sharpening the debate.
The answer might have wide implications. It could reveal much, some think, about how the brain, language and culture interact to shape the way we classify and understand our reality—not only the colors in it, but other aspects of it as well.
On one side are researchers who claim culture and language strongly shape each person’s perceptions; so that although many cultures tend to categorize colors in roughly the same way, not all necessarily do. This is called the “cultural relativity hypothesis.”
Others believe, by contrast, that a “universal” color code is hard-wired in our brains.
In the new studies, scientists on both sides reached out to some of the world’s most remote cultures to try to resolve the color question. The result: each side came up with new evidence for its own viewpoint, putting both into greater focus.
Debi Roberson of the University of Essex in Colchester, U.K., and colleagues studied a Southern African tribal community whose members viewed colors quite differently from English speakers. They made no distinction between blue and green, for example. The results provide new “evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis,” the researchers wrote in a study published in the June issue of
Cognitive Psychology, a research journal.
But a study in this week’s early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, another journal, takes the opposing view. The survey of speakers of 110 unwritten languages confirmed that there is “universal structure around which color categories are formed” in the brain, wrote Paul Kay of the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and colleagues.
Both results echo past findings somewhat.
Various studies have shown that people of all cultures agree that there are certain “basic colors,” and presented with an array of color samples, will at least to some extent agree on which are “best examples” of each basic color. Yet people also differ widely in how they describe where the boundaries between colors lie—and these differences, far from being mere questions of definitions or semantics, affect their ability to remember and quickly discriminate between various colors.
One could, of course, try to settle the debate by saying both the cultural-relativity and the universality positions have some truth. But such compromises don’t please everyone.
“The two theories invoke different premises and processes which cannot both be true,” wrote the University of California’s Carl Ratner in the Autumn, 1989
Journal of Mind and Behavior. “How could the single act of color perception be composed of two disjointed, incompatible processes?”
Kay’s team argued that their findings should settle the issue, because their survey included a wide range of peoples from remote, nonindustrialized societies. This was intended to answer critics who had claimed that previous studies backing the “universality” hypothesis had, in fact, focused narrow-mindedly on modernized societies while ignoring nonindustrialized cultures.
Kay’s research team showed 330 color chips to an average of 24 speakers in each of the 110 languages. They asked each observer to name every chip. Also, they asked each participant, with all the chips laid in front of them, to point and name the chip that best represented each of the basic colors.
The results showed that no matter what language, responses, on average, were all similar to, or “clustered” around, the colors English speakers indicate as the best examples of black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue. These “universal best examples,” Kay and colleagues wrote, “may be the source of universal tendencies in color naming.”
But Roberson said such findings are unwarranted generalizations.
It’s true, she acknowledged, that people show more consistency in naming the “central” or “best-example” colors than they do in describing the boundaries. But agreement is limited even for these best examples, she insisted. For instance, just seven of 42 indigenous New Guineans in one study agreed on a particular green chip as being the best-example color for “œnol, a name category that includes a large portion of English green, blue and purple,” she wrote in an email to World Science.
Moreover, she added, one can’t discount the importance of color boundaries. On this issue, people of different cultures sometimes wildly differ. The southern African Himba people in her
Cognitive Psychology study reportedly described chips of various colors, including light blue, with a word translated as “black” in a dictionary of their language.
Not unlike Kay’s group, Roberson’s team conducted the study in Africa in part to answer criticisms that their stance was based on too limited research before that. They had previously studied only one cultural group thoroughly, the Berinmo language speakers of New Guinea, and “concerns remained as to how representative might be [this] tiny, extremely remote community,” the researchers wrote.
Kay, for his part, said Roberson may have misinterpreted some of her data from the
Berinmo, and that in fact their color naming seems to follow the same general tendency as everyone else.
Kay and his colleagues have proposed that languages tend, over time, to develop colors words according to fairly consistent principles. First they distinguish black and white, then red, and so on (other colors are usually lumped in with one of the existing categories until they get their own names, or in rare cases simply go unnamed.) Therefore a culture needn’t boast the same color terms that all other languages possess, to be considered in-line with the “universal” tendencies according to his schema.
But if there are such universal tendencies, he added, it remains unknown what causes them.
The nature of color itself provides no obvious answers. The color spectrum is continuous; no clear line divides any two colors. So there is no obvious reason why everyone should agree, for example, on what are red, yellow and green and blue, which people seem to recognize as the “basic colors.”
To go further, there isn’t even a clear reason why everyone should recognize these as basic colors. Someone could conceivably consider the “in-betweens,” like blue-green, to be basic, and then consider as “in-between” those that other people call basic.
There is no physical reason to favor one scheme over the other. Colors all result from different wavelengths—lengths of the waves in which light travels—or combinations of wavelengths. Any length or combination thereof is possible, hence no self-evident reason to call any color basic.
Some possible reasons for universal tendencies in color naming, Kay and colleagues wrote, may include color appearance, such as the way some colors feel “warm” and others “cool”, or the frequencies with which colors statistically show up in the environment or the lighting sources available. There is no conflict between the universality of color-naming and the wide variation in color boundaries, they added, “provided one allows that the variation of category boundaries itself is constrained by universal forces.”