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MIT scientists find link between languages, color categories

John Locher/Associated Press/file

Cognitive scientists at MIT who studied more than 100 languages say they have discovered a pattern in the way different cultures discern and label colors.

While the human eye can perceive millions of colors, the various languages use only a handful of categories to group them, the research suggests.

Among the key findings is that languages tend to have more specific words for colors on the warm side of the color spectrum -- such as orange, yellow, and red -- than for those on the cool portion of the spectrum -- such as blue and green.

“Warm colors are easier to communicate than cool colors,” said one the study’s lead researchers, Edward Gibson a professor of cognitive science at MIT. “It takes fewer guesses, or fewer bits of information, to convey a warm color” to someone from a different society.


That is perhaps because objects standing out in a scene, or in everyday life, tend to be warm-colored, while cooler-colored objects tend to be found in the background, according to the researchers.

“It’s probably about the things we want to talk about: objects,” Gibson said in an interview. “The [colors] that are in objects are mostly warm, and the ones that are in backgrounds are mostly cool.’’

The research helps to fill in the gaps about how humans, despite divisions across dissimilar cultures, process the rich world around them in very similar ways.

“It suggests a communicative basis for the origin of these words in language,” regardless of society, Gibson said. “It’s not about the salience of what we see, it’s about what we want to talk about.”

Gibson is the first author on the new language-color study, along with National Eye Institute investigator Bevil Conway. The study will appear in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.


Gibson began looking into the relationship between color groupings and language after learning about variations in the way colors are described by the Tsimane’ tribe in Amazonian Bolivia.

Gibson and Conway, then an associate professor at Wellesley College, worked on a basic test with 40 Tsimane’ speakers to name 80 color chips evenly distributed across the color spectrum.

Gibson found that the Tsimane’ “consistently use words for white, black, and red, but there is less agreement among them when naming colors such as blue, green, and yellow.”

Gibson hopes to continue testing the theory to see if the patterns recur in such contrasting cultures as desert or snowy climates. And he hopes to administer a similar color test to a more industrialized society that borders the Tsimane’, with a language gap similar to that of Spanish and Portuguese.

Ben Thompson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Thompson