Friday, May 04, 2007

Vocabulary Impacts Perception

I've long been intrigued by the power that words have over thoughts. The more words we know (and know well), the better we are able to think. Without words, I am convinced, we are not able to think coherently. That's the way our brains seem to be wired.

Today I saw an interesting study (referenced on the Volokh Conspiracy blog). It seems that in Russian, they have one extra primary color. Just as English has "red" and "pink", Russian has "blue" and "light-blue" as distinct and separate colors. Both colors are lumped under the same word category in English... both are considered "blue", even if the particular shades have different names.

In the study, English speakers and Russian speakers were shown three colored squares. Two squares had the same shade of blue, one had a different shade. Russian speakers were consistently better able to determine which square was different when the shades were in the separate vocabulary categories of "blue" and "light-blue". English speakers had consistent perceptions.

In other words... the way simple objects are attached to words (especially in our childhood, I'd imagine) strongly affects our ability to perceive and discriminate those objects throughout life.

I find that fascinating.



Kevin said...


Neat research, thanks for sharing it. I agree with you that we are supported and limited by the models we create and use (e.g. words, etc.). I found the following excerpts particularly interesting:

nature: "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."

nature: "it is known that many tropical peoples do not distinguish between blue and green — linguists call this combined colour 'grue'. It has been suggested that this is because their lenses are more yellowed, or their retinas damaged, by bright sunlight, Brown says. This implies that physical effects might shape language, rather than language shaping perception."

I'm curious if English speakers would improve their speed with practice. I also wonder if they "pick out the identical squares" by physically pressing buttons or verbal identification? Is having distinct words important or just the training of distinguishing between colors, e.g. by physically pressing buttons?


MamasBoy said...

It is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

RC said...

that's really interesting, it makes sense.

--RC of