@GuyDeutscher on #language (синий and голубой) and thought

train Warsaw-Kiev Kiev 612 6.JPG
(Kiev, 2012)

I am interested in how language influences what we (can) think. A good book on this is Guy Deutscher, Through the language glass – why the world looks different in other languages (2010). It is full of wonders, such as this description of results from the paper Russian blues reveal effects of language on colour discrimination – Winawer,J., N.Witthoft, M.C.Frank, L.Wu, A.R.Wade and L.Boroditsky, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(19), pp 7780-85 (2007):

Russian has two distinct colour names for the range that English subsumes under the name ‘blue’: siniy (dark blue) and goluboy (light blue). The aim of the experiment was to check whether these two distinct ‘blues’ would affect Russians’ perception of the blue shades. The participants were seated in front of a computer screen and shown sets of three blue squares at a time: one square at the top and a pair below… 

One of the two bottom squares was always exactly the same colour as the upper square, and the other was a different shade of blue. The task was to indicate which of the two bottom squares was the same colour as the one on top. The participants… had to press one of two buttons, left or right, as quickly as they could once the picture appeared on the screen…

For each set, the colours were chosen from among twenty shades of blue. As was to be expected, the reaction time of all the participants depended first and foremost on how far the shade of the odd square out was from that of the other two… 

The more interesting results emerged when the reaction time of the Russian speakers turned out to depend not just on the objective distance between the two shades but also on the borderline between siniy and goluboy! Suppose the upper square was siniy (dark blue), but immediately on the border with goluboy (light blue). If the odd square out was two shades along towards the light direction (and thus across the border into goluboy), the average time it took the Russians to press the button was significantly shorter than if the odd square out was the same objective distance away – two shades along – but towards the dark direction, and thus another shade of siniy. When English speakers were tested with exactly the same set-up, no such skewing effect was detected in their reaction times… 

[T]he average speed with which Russians [carried out the task] was shorter if the colours had different names… [T]here is something objectively different between Russian and English speakers in the way their visual processing systems react to blue shades.

See also https://twitter.com/PaulHHodson/status/659135165952892928


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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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