October 15, 2006

the power of chartreuse

tim gunn's use of the color term "chartreuse" didn't surprise anybody. you'd expect that any self-respecting gay man (to quote tim gunn) knows some multisyllabic color terms, such as vermilion or turquoise.

in her classic book "language and woman's place", linguist robin lakoff pointed out that knowing color terms beyond the primary or secondary colors is normally considered typical of women. she herself for the longest time wasn't sure if "chartreuse" was in the pink or green family. but then, she's not a fashion designer.

[aside: try to read out the following lists of color terms. which list is easier to read out, the first or the second?]
  • red, green, purple,orange,turquoise, black
  • blue,purple, yellow,periwinkle, orange, yellow

but there's more to colors than social stereotyping of speakers. for a long time, there has been a discussion on whether or not (and if yes, to which extent) language shapes (or even determines) our perception of reality.

let's say your mental dictionary has only one word for all shades of green ("green") and that of your friend, the fashion designer, has 10 different words ("green", "chartreuse", "olive"...), does it mean that you will not be able to perceive any differences between chartreuse and olive, but your friend will? not quite. you only need to visit your local hardware store to realize that we all perceive things we don't have any names for.

but imagine the following experiment: you are presented with a card on which squares in different colors are printed. one of the colors is different from all the others. your job is to name the color of the square that stands out. in the picture to the left, it's the square at the bottom left (which seems more bluish than the others). will you recognize the odd color more quickly if it does not only look different from the other swatches but also has a completely different name, say, chartreuse?

here's the description of exactly that experiment:

Many of the distinctions made in English do not appear in other languages, and vice versa. For instance, English uses two different words for the colors blue and green, while many other languages — such as Tarahumara, an indigenous language of Mexico — instead use a single color term that covers shades of both blue and green. An earlier study by Paul Kay and colleagues had shown that speakers of English and Tarahumara perceive colors differently: English speakers found blues and greens to be more distinct from each other than speakers of Tarahumara did, as if the English “green” / “blue” linguistic distinction sharpened the perceptual difference between the colors themselves. The present study essentially repeated the English part of that earlier test, but also made sure that colors were presented to either the right or the left half of the visual field — something the earlier study hadn’t done — so as to test whether language influences the right half of our visual world more than the left half, as predicted by brain organization.

In each experimental trial of the present study, participants saw a ring of colored squares. All the squares were of exactly the same color, except for an “odd-man-out” of a different color. The odd-man-out appeared in either the right or the left half of the circle, and participants were asked to indicate which side of the circle the odd-man-out was on, by making a keyboard response. Critically, the color of this odd-man-out had either the same name as the other squares (e.g. a shade of “green”, while the others were all a different shade of “green”), or a different name (e.g. a shade of “blue”, while the others were all a shade of “green”). The researchers found that participants responded more quickly when the color of the odd-man-out had a different name than the color of the other squares — as if the linguistic difference had heightened the perceptual difference — but this only occurred if the odd-man-out was in the right half of the visual field, and not when it was in the left half. This was the predicted pattern.

Earlier studies addressing the possible influence of language on perception tended to look for a simple yes or no answer: either language affects perception, or it does not. In contrast, the current findings support both views at once. Language appears to sharpen visual distinctions in the right visual field, and not in the left visual field. The researchers conclude that “our representation of the visual world may be, at one and the same time, filtered and not filtered through the categories of language.” [this link will take you to the text from which this excerpt was taken.]
in other words, according to this experiment, knowing the word "chartreuse" will change your world (or at least the perception of half of it).

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