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True Colors

August 27, 2010
by Meghann Farnsworth

Do people who speak different languages see the world differently? Two Berkeley linguists found that they do, at least when it comes to seeing colors.

The study by professors Paul Kay, Rich Ivry, grad student Aubrey Gilbert, and University of Chicago professor Terry Regier furthers a hotly debated linguistics theory called the Whorf hypothesis: that language is not just a way of voicing ideas, but is the very structure that shapes those ideas.

A prior study by Kay had compared English speakers with speakers of Tarahumara, an indigenous Mexican dialect that employs the same word for the colors green and blue. When asked to sort chips that were shades of green and blue, the Tarahumara didn’t use the same color categories as the English speakers. To see if language truly influences the way the brain processes color, the research team’s next step was to test each side of the brain separately. That’s because language is processed only on the left side of the brain, which governs the right eye.

The researchers created a ring of 12 colored squares—all green except one. Sometimes the odd box was blue, and sometimes it was a different hue of green. Then they moved the odd box between the right and left sides of the circle to determine how the different sides of the subject’s brain processed the colors.

“We have a unified consciousness. But each side of the brain, the right and left hemispheres, take two different snapshots of the world,” says Ivry, a professor of psychology and neuroscience. “We found that on the left side of the brain, subjects found it easy to spot the odd blue among the greens. It jumped out.” This was expected. “But it was more difficult for the left brain to spot the difference between a green among greens,” he says. He explains that among English speakers the words “green” and “blue” help the left brain—the language side—to pick out the different colors. But without words to set the two greens apart, the left brain stumbled. The right brain, however, responded the same whether the odd box was blue or a different shade of green.

The findings are a small step toward proving the Whorf hypothesis, which has far-reaching implications. There are an estimated 6,000 languages worldwide. Linguists predict that half the world’s languages will be dead within two generations, replaced by dominant languages, especially English. Their question is: Are we losing more than just words?

From the May June 2006 What’s Happened to the Animals of Yosemite issue of California.

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