Culture, Language, and Color Perception

Language, culture, and color: How do they fit together? Does every language have the same number of words for each color, or do some languages identify colors with more words, or less words? Such as blue and green, some languages may recognize blue as a shade of green. While in English, green may often be an all-encompassing term for many shades, though some languages may distinctly and consistently differentiate these shades in everyday use. Can this affect perception of color or ease of identification? I believe that difference in the quantity of words for certain colors, may in some ways, affect identification of color for the user of that language. More so, what if a language does not have specific color words? Perhaps it’s possible to express sensory experiences pertaining to color without using a color term itself.

This page provides sources to better explore these questions. Below are five sources that I have handpicked to better answer these questions. Many contain studies, sources, citations, and have come from accredited universities or professionals. I have attempted to be choose reliable sources and if I have found a potential disadvantage, have listed the disadvantage toward the end of the source explanation.

I hope to further explore this topic to better understand a characteristic of language that may shape the world around us, the way we explain our experiences, and the way we perceive color. I feel this is a topic of interest that could better be used to understand the fields of both linguistics and cultural anthropology. Some of the studies conducted are pertinent to both fields, and exploring methods, while learning of a unique topic, could better my understanding and interest in both culture and language.


Video – How Language Changes the Way We See Color

This is a 2018 Tech Insider published YouTube video, featuring Gavin Evans, lecturer at Birkbeck University. Gavin Evans has written a book called The Story of Colour. This video dives into the idea of color perception being possibly related to not only what we see, but also, the words that we give color. This idea is backed by a study done in Namibia whereas a tribe that does not discern between blues and green with different words, rather the English word for blue is often considered a variant of green through the tribe’s language, was given a color wheel of green squares and one blue square. Those in the study had a difficult time distinguishing which square was blue, however, were quick to differentiate another color wheel with all squares containing the same shade of green, except one shade that was slightly different. The English speakers in the video had a much more difficult time distinguishing the different variant of green.

This advantages are that source is backed by a lecturer from an accredited university and published in a recent time frame, however, the study in the video was not cited nor specified, other than the details of the study.


News article – MIT News: Analyzing the language of color

This source explains that some languages use fewer or more words for colors. Shown through a study, cognitive scientists have found that languages (more than 100 studied), tend to divide the “warm” part of the color spectrum into more color words , such as red, orange, and yellow, as compared to the “cooler” regions, which include blue and green. This leads to a more consistent labeling of warmer colors by different speakers of the same language.

The advantage of this news article article is that it was published in 2017 on the MIT (Massachusetts Technical Institute) On Campus and Around the world news page. MIT is a highly accredited University. Also, the article explains the research process and those involved, including their credentials. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

From left to right, this chart shows the order of most to least efficiently communicated colors, in English, Spanish, and Tsimane’ languages:


Book – Through the Language Glass

Deutscher, G. (2010). Through the language glass: Why the world looks different in other languages. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co.

As expressed by The Ohio State University’s WorldCat Library Search, Through the language glass : why the world looks different in other languages can be summarized as “a masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how–and whether–culture shapes language and language, culture. How languages deal with color is given particular emphasis.”

The advantages of this source is that it is written by Guy Deutscher who is formerly a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Languages in the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and honorary Research Fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures in the University of Manchester. It is also published by New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co. in the fairly recent year of 2010.


Academic Journal Article – On contrastive perception and ineffability: assessing sensory experience without colour terms in an Amazonian society

Citation: Surrallés, A. (2016), On contrastive perception and ineffability: assessing sensory experience without colour terms in an Amazonian society. J R Anthropol Inst, 22: 962-979. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12499

As explained in the abstract, this source is based on an ethnographic study relating to the Candoshi of the Upper Amazon, and explores how they evaluate sensory experience pertaining to colors, without color names. This article shows that the Candoshi do not have any terms for color in their language, and that through ‘contrastive perception’ manage to communicate sensory experience.

The advantages of this article are that it was published by the peer reviewed Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 2016 and written by Alexandre Surrallés. Alexandre Surrallés is the Director of Studies, Chair: “Anthropology of Affectivity”, School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, EHESS, Paris; Director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS; and has involvement with the Laboratory of Social Anthropology, Collège de France, Paris. However, this biographical information was found on what looked like a self published page and has only been cited once according to the Wiley Online Library. However, this study has been featured on other pertinent websites.

Anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés’ work with the Candoshi people of the Peruvian Amazon led to results that contradicted those of The World Color Survey, which has shaped current thinking in the field of color research:


Feature on Professional Organization: American Psychological Association – Hues and views

Adelson, R. (2005). Hues and views. Monitor on Psychology, 36(2). doi:10.1037/e311652005-026

As explained on the American Psychological Association (APA) website, “APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members.” Through a quick search, it can be found that the APA is highly recognized.

The Article featured explains that “color words in a given language may shape human perception of color, perhaps explaining why some native English-speaking children, familiar with the rainbow of colors in the Crayola 64-pack, actually can tell “rust” from “brick” and “moss” from “sage,” while children who grow up speaking languages with fewer color names lump such hues together.”

It is advantageous that this This article is featured on an esteemed organizations website, however, I couldn’t find much information on the author. The article however, explains several studies, and those who took part in the studies, along with pertinent credentials. The article is also fairly recent as it was published in 2005.