Color vision, from genetics through neuropsychology to color terms, is one of the most intensely investigated topics in cognitive science. The subject is interesting for two reasons:
- as psychological phenomena go, it's relatively simple, and accessible to investigation through a variety of methods, and
- in particular, it can be studied cross-culturally and thus shed light on the nature-nurture question.
Mark Changizi has recently argued the color vision has evolved for the purpose of allowing us to obtain clues about a person's health and state of mind from changes in skin color, blushing, bruising, and the like. He's stated this idea at some length in the first chapter of The Vision Revolution (BenBella Books, 2009, pp. 5-48). Folks have been discussing this idea at some length over at Crooked Timber.
In thinking through that discussion I formulated this question and sent it to Changizi: Question: Lots of languages have rather impoverished systems of color terms. Would folks speaking a language that lacked a term for green thereby have more fine-grained perception of greens? He didn't have an answer but indicated that people are working on that kind of issue. He sent me reprints of two papers that are indeed relevant.
Color terminology seems subject to constraints that are universal but, at the same time, differences in color naming across cultures does seem to cause differences in color perception. How do you like them apples? Both universal and different at the same time.
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Paul Kay and Terry Regier. Language, thought and color: recent developments. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.10 No.2 February 2006, pp. 51-54
Here's how Kay and Regier state matters as they existed, say, a quarter of a century ago:
Color naming varies across languages; however, it has long been held that this variation is constrained. Berlin and Kay  found that color categories in 20 languages were organized around universal ‘focal colors’ – those colors corresponding principally to the best examples of English ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’, ‘yellow’, ‘green’ and ‘blue’. Moreover, a classic set of studies by Eleanor Rosch found that these focal colors were also remembered more accurately than other colors, across speakers of languages with different color naming systems (e.g. ). Focal colors seemed to constitute a universal cognitive basis for both color language and color memory.
Research conducted in the last decade or so has called those conclusions into question. Kay and Regier present and discuss this work and offer this summary:
The debate over color naming and cognition can be clarified by discarding the traditional ‘universals versus relativity’ framing, which collapses important distinctions. There are universal constraints on color naming, but at the same time, differences in color naming across languages cause differences in color cognition and/or perception. The source of the universal constraints is not firmly established. However, it appears that it can be said that nature proposes and nurture disposes. Finally, ‘categorical perception’ of color might well be perception sensu stricto, but the jury is still out.
The key proposition is that "differences in color naming across languages cause differences in color cognition and/or perception."
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Paul Kay and Terry Regier, Resolving the question of color naming universals, PNAS, vol. 100, no. 15, July 22, 2003, pp. 9085-9089.
The existence of cross-linguistic universals in color naming is currently contested. Early empirical studies, based principally on languages of industrialized societies, suggested that all languages may draw on a universally shared repertoire of color categories. Recent work, in contrast, based on languages from nonindustrialized societies, has suggested that color categories may not be universal. No comprehensive objective tests have yet been conducted to resolve this issue. We conduct such tests on color naming data from languages of both industrialized and nonindustrialized societies and show that strong universal tendencies in color naming exist across both sorts of language.
From the methodology discussion:
The central empirical focus of our study was the color naming data of the Word Color Survey (WCS). The WCS was undertaken in response to the above-mentioned shortcomings of the BK [Berlin and Kay] data (1): it has collected color naming data in situ from 110 unwritten languages spoken in small-scale, nonindustrialized societies, from an average of 24 native speakers per language (mode: 25 speakers), insofar as possible monolinguals. Speakers were asked to name each of 330 color chips produced by the Munsell Color Company (New Windsor, NY), representing 40 gradations of hue at eight levels of value (lightness) and maximal available chroma (saturation), plus 10 neutral (black-gray-white) chips at 10 levels of value. Chips were presented in a fixed random order for naming. The array of all color chips is shown in Fig. 1. (The actual stimulus colors may not be faithfully represented there.) In addition, each speaker was asked to indicate the best example(s) of each of his or her basic color terms. The original BK study used a color array that was nearly identical to this, except that it lacked the lightest neutral chip. The languages investigated in the WCS and BK are listed in Tables 1 and 2.
The concluding paragraph:
The application of statistical tests to the color naming data of the WCS has established three points: (i) there are clear cross-linguistic statistical tendencies for named color categories to cluster at certain privileged points in perceptual color space; (ii) these privileged points are similar for the unwritten languages of nonindustrialized communities and the written languages of industrialized societies; and (iii) these privileged points tend to lie near, although not always at, those colors named red, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, orange, pink, black, white, and gray in English.