Colour has been one of the main interests of all those who have tried to show how language is involved in the perception of the world.
There have been numerous studies that have examined the relationship between language and color perception, but it was not until recently when it has been proved scientifically that color perception is really influenced by language.
Not all languages have the same number of words to describe different colors, that is to say, there are languages that have only the words equivalent to “white” and “black” while other languages have developed a much more complex chromatic vocabulary.
After white and black, the next colour humans tend to name is red, possibly because it is the colour of blood. Following, according to the theory of Lazarus Geiger, often green is named before yellow and blue is usually one of the last to be named. In many cases what we consider blue or green, in other languages is usually a single colour.
Among the studies that have been done recently in this area, supported by technology measuring brain activity, there is one made to English and Russian speakers that stands out.
In English to refer to blue it is used just one word, while Russian distinguishes between dark blue and light blue with two different words. The volunteers were shown three squares with different shades of blue and had to group those with the same tonality. In the study, Russian speakers were faster than the English ones in discriminating different shades, but how do you prove that the key lays in the language spoken? The test was repeated but this time “distracting” Russian speakers with other verbal activities. In that case it was found that their efficiency fell to the English speaker’s level, since they could not use the clues to discriminate colours that their language gave them.
Another recent discovery in that regard is the confirmation that infants and adults process colours in different regions of the brain, leading some to conclude that perhaps it is due to the influence of language. This is because colour is not seen by the eyes but by the brain.
Another aspect in which the influence of the language has been discussed most is on the issue of gender.
Everyone knows that there are some languages that do not have or have lost their distinction of gender in most words, as in the case of English. Other languages have two genders in correspondence with the masculine or feminine natural gender, as is the case of Spanish or Italian. There are also languages like Greek or German, that have three genders, one masculine, one feminine and one neutral.
These genders, we have learned and assimilated with our mother tongue, influence how we see the world as has been demonstrated by various linguists.
One of the issues which has received more attention is the fact of attributing a masculine or feminine gender to inanimate objects, that besides do not always correspond in all languages. Even in tongues “sisters” as French, Italian or Spanish we realize that often an object’s gender is different accross the languages. For example, in Spanish el coche, or automóvil are masculine, whereas in French la voiture and in Italian la macchina are feminine. In Spanish la cuchara is feminine, as in French la cuillère, whereas in Italian il cucchiaio is masculine. And so with many other words.
What does this mean for the speakers of these languages? First, languages that use gender attribute gender traits to objects. For example, if we decide to make an animated movie in which the protagonist is a spoon and we ask several people what voice it would have, if a male or female one, we would find that in the case of French and Spanish speakers they would probably choose one female voice, while Italians possibly would choose a male voice.
In another experiment German speakers and Spanish speakers were asked to describe objects like a key (feminine in Spanish but masculine in German) or a bridge (masculine in Spanish but feminine in German). It was found that speakers attributed traits or characteristics to these objects according to the gender the word had in each language. That is to say, Spanish speakers described bridges with adjectives that expressed more masculine connotations, while the German speakers used adjectives with feminine connotations.
But, apart from objects, what about abstract concepts? One small example also shows how these are influenced by language. Throughout history artists have represented death in various ways, in many cases by a personification that matched in gender with the gender of the word in the artist’s language. In most cases, Spanish speaking artists represent death as a woman, while German speakers represent it as a man.
These are some examples of the influence of language in the way we perceive the world but there are many more.