Can Language Determine Perception?

What does this imply for B. L. Whorf? In [email protected]:


The language you speak may influence how you perceive colours, according to new research. Russian speakers, who have separate words for light and dark blue, are better at discriminating between the two, suggesting that they do indeed perceive them as different colours.

Russian speakers divide what the English language regard as ‘blue’ into two separate colours, called ‘goluboy’ (light blue) and ‘siniy’ (dark blue). And a test now shows that this seems to help them view light and dark blue as distinct.

Researchers led by Jonathan Winawer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge presented Russian and English speakers with sets of three blue squares, two of which were identical shades with a third ‘odd one out’. They asked the volunteers to pick out the identical squares.

Russian speakers performed the task more quickly when the two shades straddled their boundary between goluboy and siniy than when all shades fell into one camp. English speakers showed no such distinction.

What’s more, when the researchers interfered with volunteers’ verbal abilities by asking them to recite a string of numbers in their head while performing the task, the Russian effect vanished. This shows that linguistic effects genuinely do influence colour perception.