Hue and cry

时间:2019-03-08 06:20:26166网络整理admin

By Alison Motluk DOES the language you speak affect the way you perceive the world? Jules Davidoff, a psychologist at Goldsmith College in London, claims that it does. His new study challenges the idea that colour perception is universal. Since 1972 research by Eleanor Rosch, now at the University of California at Berkeley, has dominated the field. She compared colour discrimination by North Americans with that of the Dani from Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The Dani use only two words to describe all the colours they see, whereas English speakers normally distinguish 11 separate colours, including black, white and grey. Rosch asked the volunteers to remember a colour they were shown, then pick it out from similar ones. She concluded from her results that despite differences in the way the two groups described colour, the American and Dani volunteers made very similar errors, evidence that they were perceiving colours in the same way. The finding lent powerful support to the idea that such perception is universal, and not altered by culture. “It was the first trickle in the flood of the genetic determinism bandwagon that we’re all on now,” says Davidoff. Davidoff and his colleagues have now repeated the experiments and come to completely different conclusions. His group studied the Burinmo of Papua New Guinea, a remote hunter-gatherer people who use only five words to describe colours. They found that both the Burinmo and British volunteers found it easier to remember colours they could easily name. Unlike English speakers, the Burinmo don’t distinguish between green and blue, but they distinguish two colours English speakers don’t: nol (which different English speakers would describe as green or blue or purple) and wor (in English, yellow, orange, brown or green). The researchers asked Burinmo and English volunteers to look at a colour, remember it for a few seconds, then select the same colour from a pair of similar alternatives. Not surprisingly, the Burinmo had trouble distinguishing between blues and greens, while English subjects had problems with shades of nol and wor. In another experiment, Davidoff’s team asked both the English and the Burinmo groups to learn a new distinction: between two types of green. The volunteers then had to sort colours into two stacks. The Burinmo found it just as hard to separate blue from green as to distinguish between the two greens, whereas the English volunteers found the nol/wor distinction most difficult to grasp. The researchers also took a second look at the data from Rosch’s study, which Davidoff says most people would interpret differently. People find it easier to distinguish colours if the division corresponds to a linguistic, rather than a supposed universal, distinction, the team concludes in this week’s Nature (vol 398, p 203). “The effects of culture are being underestimated,