How do Russians see blue? Language may affect how you see the world  


Komorebi. Image credit: via Flickr user Matt Gibson

Imagine yourself sitting under a tree at your favorite park. The sky is blue, the breeze is mellow, and the sun is trickling gently through the leaves above. There is a Japanese word for these trickles of light and its called Komorebi (木漏れ日). This is a word I’ve been obsessed with for a while because it’s actually untranslatable; there’s no single word in the English language that describes the same thing. Untranslatable words demonstrate how culture can influence language and vocabulary. Japanese people probably had many thoughts about sunlight in forests and therefore the word was created. But have you ever thought about how words can influence how you think? Could having a word like Komorebi change the way you think about sunlight? Can language shape your perception of the world?

A thought provoking quote… Image credit: via Flickr user Gisela Giardino

Language is the fabric of thought

In the early 20th century, a controversial idea was popularised by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. This was known as linguistic relativity (AKA Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism) and was the idea that the way we think is strongly influenced by the language that we use. This hypothesis had a “strong” version (language shapes and constrains all thoughts and decisions) that has proven to be too extreme; we aren’t slaves to our dictionaries. On the other hand, there may still be some truth in the “weak” version (language has influences on thoughts and decisions). While the evidence for this weak version has been minimal, there are still some interesting studies that are food for thought. This has led to one of the most interesting ongoing debates between neo-Whorfianists and its skeptics, just how much credibility does this idea have?

On the topic of colour: does language affect colour discrimination?

On the topic of blue… Image credit: via Flickr user yashima

 One of the more convincing studies showing an affect of language on cognition is a study focusing on colour perception. We all know what colours are: Red, Blue, Yellow etc. These are known as basic colour words, but did you know that different languages have different basic colours? For example, Russian has no single word encompassing what we would call blue. Instead, they have two separate words; goluboj means light blue, and siniy means dark blue. In 2007, Winawer and his colleagues based a colour discrimination study around this difference in language. He presented Russian speakers and English speakers with blue colour squares positioned in a triangle (one on top, and two at the bottom). One of the bottom colours matched the top colour and participants were instructed to pick out the matching square from the bottom row. Interestingly, the Russian speakers actually performed the task faster than English speakers! Dr. Winawer suggested Russian speakers had no choice but to notice the differences between light and dark blue because it’s a feature of their language. In contrast, English speakers do not have this difference in their language and therefore have to put more effort into telling the colours apart.

What makes the results even more convincing is that when the Russian speakers were told to complete a verbal interference task at the same time (reciting a string of digits), the difference between the speakers disappeared. This shows that the results were actually due to language because the interference was able to remove this effect.

 Sure it’s statistically significant, but is it meaningful?

 The results showed that the Russian speakers were faster by a whopping 124 milliseconds! Ok, I know that hardly seems like much but at least it was statistically significant, right? …Right?

While the study shows indisputable proof that there is some sort of effect of language, it actually ends up supporting both perspectives towards linguistic relativity. The Russian speakers definitely had some sort of advantage due to language, but critics suggest that the effect is so small that there is no meaningful effect on how we see the world. Nevertheless, this is only one piece of the puzzle and it’s going to take scientists much longer to fully decipher the mysteries of the mind. Is the effect of language really limited to 124 milliseconds? Or is this just the tip of a very large iceberg?

What do you think?

9 Responses to “How do Russians see blue? Language may affect how you see the world  ”

  1. trishfishkoh says:

    Well done, Leslie! I love linguistics and did a few subjects in undergrad.

    I remember having to do a French translation piece and it was very difficult trying to find words that conveyed the same feeling in English.

    Usually though, I felt that sometimes English had a much larger vocabulary and we had lots of words that all had different nuances. I am biased though because my French was not the greatest!

  2. Eileen Lam says:

    Language is truly beautiful and complex. There are just so many words describing the same thing and yet each could have a different interpretation.

  3. Mei says:

    Fascinating piece Leslie! I also had a bit of a google as I am “bilingual”. I use ” ” because my Chinese isn’t of a great standard, but apparently many languages do not distinguish between green and blue, Chinese being one of them. There is a character that “depicts the budding of a young plant…used to describe colors ranging from light and yellowish green through deep blue all the way to black”. I haven’t really noticed if my thoughts differ from monolinguals but I will starting thinking about it!

  4. August says:

    Fantastic one, Leslie! It got me thinking about the interplay of names of colours and colours themselves. Similar to Russian blues (oh wow that would make a cool band name) I can think of the colour orange, which is derived from the fruit. Before the word, or the fruit appeared in English, people used to referred to orange-coloured things as red (thus ‘redheads’, whose hair colour are actually more orange). How interesting that a new word for colour is almost like a new colour on its own! Another case I recall is the ancient Greeks describing the colour of the sky as bronze (in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), because they had a lack of blue dyes but associated the colour blue with oxidised bronze

  5. Nicole says:

    Really great blog Leslie! I find this topic fascinating. Did you know that there is no mention of blue in any old texts, and so it’s speculated that our ancestors either a) couldn’t see blue, or b) didn’t have a word for blue at all. or c) couldn’t differentiate between blue and green, so they were one in the same. After reading your article I think it’s C…Because they didn’t have a word for it, they found it more difficult to see differences between the two colours. I wonder if we would have the same difficulties if the concept and word for blue was never created?

  6. Leslie says:

    In my opinion everybody has different interpretations of words, since they are just representations of ideas. Some ideas are more emotionally charged to people and therefore the associated word would be perceived as more emotional to them.

  7. Joshua Munro says:

    Fantastic topic leslie, great food for thought! I’ve often also thought about how language is affected by how we perceive emotions. For example a word that someone uses might have a stronger ‘feel-good’ emotional tie than another person using that same word. Does that mean we each perceive emotions associated with the same words slightly differently?

  8. Leslie says:

    I was originally going to also talk about bilinguals but ran out of space 🙁 there was a study in 2011 that looked at japanese-english bilinguals (1 group used more english, the other group used more japanese), and those who spoke more japanese performed better (japanese also has two words for blue)

  9. BirdKate says:

    Beautifully written Leslie, I found myself thinking about bilingual people while reading it. I have read that when you learn a second language you start to think and dream in that language without consciously realising it, I wonder how bilingual people would fair in the blue test and how their duel perspective changes their thought patterns, or if it does at all and bilingual people trend towards their ‘home’ language.