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Do You See What I See?

Sep 2015

Language ,

Do You See What I See?

In 2011 the BBC broadcasted an episode of Horizon entitled Do You See What I See? which dug into the murky world of perception and colour.

The programme crossed the world speaking to experts in perception and linguistic oddities in search of some hints into how our brains understand colour.

In London they spoke to Beau Lotto, a master of illusions who manipulated colour to slow down time for participants in an experiment.

In Durham they tracked down Russell Hill and Iain Greenlees. This scientific duo were investigating the “winning effect” of the colour red.

But it was in Namibia that things got interesting. The programme followed a French researcher talking to the Himba tribe. The Himba have only five words to describe colour compared to the eleven common words in English. The divisions are drawn differently too. The sky is black, the water is white and blue and green share the same word.

Himba participants were taking part in an experiment into how people distinguish colour. Participants were shown a series of colour swatches and asked to pick out the odd one one.

Green on Blue

Because they have spent their lives describing blue and green with the same colour, Himba participants would struggle to distinguish the two colours in the example above.

Green on Green

However, due to the way the Himba language divides colour, they can easily differentiate between these two shades of almost identical green.

It was strange to see someone struggle to pick apart two colours that were so vividly different to me. However, if the roles were reversed and I had to identify the odd green out, I’m sure the feeling would be mutual.

It’s a little like the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis which states that the structure of language influences the modes of our thought and behaviour. For example, if your language has one word for blue and green, you see them as one colour.

It’s easy to think, then, that what I see when I look at a pink flamingo isn’t what you see. However, new research has thrown that into doubt.


New Insight into the Evolution of Colour Terms

The study, Hunter-Gatherer Color Naming Provides New Insight into the Evolution of Color Terms, looks at the language of the Hadza people, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers from northern Tanzania.

Their culture has remained relatively isolated from the world and their language is peculiar on the world stage. Like the Himba, the Hadza language lacks many of the words we use to describe colour.

Building on top of existing research into language and culture, researchers investigated the Hadza language to discover whether there was an underlying way we treat language.

The study asked participants to name certain colours and recorded the grouping patterns that emerged.

While participants were able to accurately identify black, white and red, they struggled to name others. However, even though they didn’t have names for colours, the researchers noticed the way they grouped colours was similar to that of 100 languages around the world, including English and Somali.

This, say the researchers, suggests that the participants have the cognitive mechanisms in place for such a task even without the language to express it.

“You can think of the words as species that are evolving — they are competing for space in our heads. So this is an example of cultural evolution that closely mirrors biological evolution,” explained Delwin Lindsey, one of the researchers, in a recent statement.

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