Language& Thought: Is blue really blue or could it be green for some?


Below are the links to an amazing video titled “Colour is in the eye of the beholder”, which portrays how color could be interpreted differently, and how one simply cannot recognize a color which the others are very familiar with. When you watch the video, you can really wonder about how different people could be depending on what languages they acquired. Then, the question is, “does language really affect (maybe limit or enhance) how we perceive the world?” After watching the video, you might have a look at my comments and a brief review of what is known today in the current literature.

Click on the following Links to video or simply click on the image below: LINK-1  LINK-2


In brief, the video titled “Colour is in the eye of the beholder” produced by BBC covers two issues in language acquisition. Firstly, the video, telling us that color vision does not develop before the first 3 months of life (infants in their first weeks can only see the world in black and white colors), illustrates that color vision develops differently during pre-language and post-language stages. Anne Franklin explains that while color categories can develop even before they learn the words of colors while category effect moves from left visual field (LVF) to right visual field (RVF) when toddlers learn their first language. Here, RVF is connected to the left part of the brain which is linguistically dominant, while right brain is dominant for images and visualization. These findings reveal that learning color terms can change the structure of our brains, which means a lot for linguists who study the effect of language on brain, perception, cognition and thought. Secondly, the video features Himbas living in Namibia who have different color categories from most other western languages. Himbas have a total of 6 color categories and they have a different categorization for the colors of blue and green. While they can easily differentiate various forms of green, which is almost impossible to do so for the speakers of English, they cannot differ the blue color from the color green. All of these findings tell us that color categorization in one’s language can have an effect on how they perceive the colors and see the world around. This further suggests us that our languages can have such effects in different domains of our life as well.

To begin with, according to what has been portrayed in the video, it seems that there is a clear consensus on what linguists or scientists think about the relationship between language and cognition; however, as put forward by Franklin (2009) in one of the latest articles regarding this topic, “it appears that currently it is difficult to form a clear conclusion from investigations of CP in toddlers about the origin and nature of color CP”.  In fact, there has been a lot of research about this issue (Franklin et al., 2005; Franklin et al., 2006; Davidoff et al., 2009; Franklin et al., 2009), reviews on it (Regier, 2007; Regier, 2009; Ozgen, 2009;), and also articles and studies (Boroditsky, 2010; Deutscher, 2010; Liberman, 2010), but as also stressed above, there seems to be not much consensus so far. The point where most of the researchers have come to suggests that the effects of language on the way people categorize and perceive colors have been considered to be minimal, but recent evidence suggests that language may indeed change color perception. Speakers of languages with different color-name repertoires show differences in the way they perceive color (Ozgen, 2009).  Ozgen (2009) also adds that research shows categorical effects on color perception can be induced through laboratory training and suggests language can similarly change color perception through the mechanism. At this point, what we have also watched in the video about Himba adults, and current literature seem to support linguistic relativity hypothesis put forth by Whorf who proposes that language influences and even shapes thought. Regarding the video it is really amazing that Himbas cannot differentiate green and blue colors, while they can easily identifies a different shade of color green. It is because their language has a different coding and category names for colors and this makes them different from the speakers of most western languages with similar color categorization. There are also various other studies or articles by Boroditsky (2010), Deutscher (2010), and Liberman (2010) who refer to various issues to show how language may shape different thought patterns in different languages. For instance, one of the popular issues is the gender system induced in languages like German, Spanish, French etc. In some studies, the speakers of these languages tend to attribute different qualities to regular objects or things which have different genders in those specific languages. It also shows that language may have an effect on how you see the world similar to the color categorization study of Himbas. Moreover, as explained in Liberman’s article, the focus of English native speakers on the agent or the doer of some actions help them to have better memory for such things while narrating a story or answering questions about who did something, which is not the case in Spanish. As a result, although it may not still be obvious to draw a conclusion, it is possible to say that language has a certain effect on cognition and thought system and this may differ from one language to the other as also suggested by relativists. On the other hand, both for first language (Berlin and Kay, 1969) and even second language acquisition (Chomsky, 1956), it is also possible to talk about similarities among languages that suggest a universal pattern. As quoted in Ozgen’s article (2009), Berlin and Kay proposed that the basic color terms in a language evolve over time, and that differences in the color terminologies of different languages arise from differences in evolutionary stage; all languages eventually end up with the same 11 “universal” basic color terms. Regarding adults of especially Himba tribe, it is possible to talk about some color categorization in general, but the fact that both they have different color categorization and they have 5-6 categories all in all contradict with Universalists’ view. However, regardless of post-language stage and nurture factors, it may be possible, though not clear yet, to come up with some universal color categories regarding infants or toddler at pre-language stage. The video refers to how language can affect infants’ cognition and brain processes through the language learning process but only for English speakers rather than a comparison with Himbas or similar groups of people. At this point, referring to the research studies carried out (Franklin et al., 2005; Franklin et al., 2006; Davidoff et al., 2009; Franklin et al., 2009),  it is both/neither possible to talk about a similarity and/nor difference among English and Himba infants at pre-language stage, which neither refute nor prove relativists and universalists’ view. In fact, it is best to conclude all this discussion with the following quote from Franklin and her colleagues (2009) latest article:

Goldstein and colleagues largely replicate our investigation of the effect of color term knowledge on CP of color in toddlers. However, an analysis of color CP according to toddlers’ color term knowledge for the wider category, and the absence of blue–green CP in Himba toddlers, lead Goldstein and colleagues to very different conclusions. Although their data pro- vide some evidence for the absence of color CP when color terms are not known, this commentary has highlighted contrasting evidence. A reanalysis of Franklin and colleagues’ original data indicated that even toddlers who did not know the terms for the best example of the relevant categories showed CP, and data from Wright’s doctoral thesis provided evidence for blue–green CP in Himba toddlers whose language does not make a blue–green distinction. Therefore, it appears that currently it is difficult to form a clear conclusion from investigations of CP in toddlers about the origin and nature of color CP. We emphasize the importance of further research that overcomes the limitations of the current approach and may provide a more consistent account of the origin and nature of CP of color.


Boroditsky, Lera. 2010. “Lost in Translation.” The Wall Street Journal.… (September 22, 2013).

Daoutis, Christine a., Anna Franklin, Amy Riddett, Alexandra Clifford, and Ian R. L. Davies. 2006. “Categorical Effects in Children’s Colour Search: A Cross-linguistic Comparison.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology 24(2): 373–400. (September 22, 2013).

Deutscher, G. 2010. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times: 1–10. (September 22, 2013).

Franklin, Anna, Ally Clifford, Emma Williamson, and Ian Davies. 2005. “Color Term Knowledge Does Not Affect Categorical Perception of Color in Toddlers.” Journal of experimental child psychology 90(2): 114–41. (September 22, 2013).

Franklin, Anna, Oliver Wright, and Ian R L Davies. 2009. “What Can We Learn from Toddlers About Categorical Perception of Color? Comments on Goldstein, Davidoff, and Roberson.” Journal of experimental child psychology 102(2): 239–45. (September 22, 2013).

Goldstein, Julie, Jules Davidoff, and Debi Roberson. 2009. “Knowing Color Terms Enhances Recognition: Further Evidence from English and Himba.” Journal of experimental child psychology 102(2): 219–38. (September 22, 2013).

Liberman, Mark. 2010. “Never Mind the Coclusions, What’s the Evidence?”

Ozgen, Emre. 2009. “Language, Learning, and Color Perception.” Trends in cognitive sciences 13(3): 95–98. (September 22, 2013).

Regier, Terry. 2007. “Color Naming and the Effect of Language on Perception.” Color and Imaging Conference: 1–2. (September 22, 2013).

Regier, Terry, and Paul Kay. 2009. “Language, Thought, and Color: Whorf Was Half Right.” Trends in cognitive sciences 13(10): 439–46. (September 22, 2013).

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