Color, Language, and Thought

Principal Investigator(s): 
Paul Kay, Terry Regier

In 1978 The World Color Survey (WCS) collected color naming data in 110 unwritten languages from around the world. The ICSI WCS staff (Paul Kay and Richard Cook of ICSI, Terry Regier of University of Chicago) put these data into a single database, available to the scientific community. Several outside laboratories have already used this database for studies.

ICSI WCS personnel, joined in one case by Michael Webster (University of Nevada, Reno), have published several statistical studies, using the WCS database, that establish universal tendencies in color naming (contrary to the claims of some linguistic relativists).

In 2010, a sequel to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's 1969 book Basic Color Terms was published by CSLI Publications. The new book, World Color Survey, is authored by Paul Kay, Brent Berlin, Luisa Maffi, William R. Merrifield, and Richard S. Cook. It presents a detailed analysis of the color systems of the 110 unwritten languages studied by the WCS.

A collaboration of Aubrey Gilbert and Richard Ivry of the UC Berkeley Psychology Department with Regier and Kay has demonstrated Whorfian effects in color discrimination lateralized to the right visual field. The right visual field projects to the left cerebral (or "language") hemisphere. Subsequent experiments revealed the lateralized Whorfian effect in a second lexical domain. Follow-up studies, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Surrey led by Anna Franklin and I.R.L. Davies, have shown that infants have lateralized categorical perception for color in the left visual field, and that for toddlers the visual field yielding a relative advantage for cross-category discriminations of color changes from left to right with the acquisition of color terms. Future lateralization studies of color, other lexical domains, and other languages are planned.

Regier, Kay, and Naveen Khetarpal of the University of Chicago have completed a study, based on the WCS database, demonstrating that color naming across languages reflects near-optimal partitions of the irregular surface of perceptual color space. Further optimization studies of color naming are planned, using different color order systems and more complex and realistic models of the evolution of color naming systems. The optimization model shows promise of explaining systematic variation across color naming systems, as well as universal tendencies. The same ideas have recently also been applied to spatial terms in several unrelated languages.

Funding provided by NSF grant 0130420, Statistical analysis of cross-language color naming data.