The Reddest Red

Which of these is the reddest red? People tend to differ in their opinion, so try asking some friends and family. You will be amazed at the different choices people make.

Scroll down to find the answer…

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It’s G2 isn’t it? Sorry, I was pulling your leg about different people giving different answers. In fact, the remarkable thing is that almost everybody in the world would give the same answer, or at least choose one of the immediately adjacent boxes.

A study by two psychologists – Brent Berlin and Paul Kay – in the 1960s gave this test to speakers in – deep breath – Lebanon, Bulgaria, Spain, China, USA, Israel, Hungary, Nigeria, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Kenya, The Philippines, Thailand, Tzeltal, Urdu and Vietnam. Although the boundaries for which shades people would accept as red varied a little, speakers from all of these countries were virtually unanimous on the best red. This suggests that the languages don’t divide up the colour spectrum arbitrarily, but in principled ways based on the human visual system that we all share. There also seems to be something special about red. Berlin and Kay found that if a language has only two colour terms (such languages exist!), they are black/dark/cool and white/light/warm. If a language has only three terms, the third is always red. If a language has only four or five colour terms, the fourth and fifth will be green and yellow (in either order), with blue sixth. So, no matter how hard you try, you will never find a language that has word for blue, but not red.

Studies of this type have been used to investigate linguistic determinism – the idea that, if you don’t have a word for something, you can’t conceive of it (which is why George Orwell’s totalitarian government in 1984 erased words such as “democracy” and “liberty” from the dictionary). Actually, though, these studies quickly showed that strong linguistic determinism can’t be right. Even speakers of languages with only two colour terms (e.g., the Dani languages of New Guinea) can distinguish between colours for which they have no names. So it’s not true that, if your language doesn’t distinguish between – say – blue and green, then you can’t either.

That said, while language doesn’t determine thought, it certainly seems to shape it. For example, some Aboriginal languages don’t use words like left and right, but instead describe all positions in geographical terms. For example, a teacher might ask you to raise your “south” hand. So, these languages shape their speakers’ thoughts by forcing them to think about something that rarely occurs to speakers of – say – English: the speaker’s and listener’s positions relative to the points of the compass.

But let’s not get carried away. While language does seem to shape thought – at least in some fairly restricted domains – these colour-term studies show that linguistic determinism can certainly not – if you will pardon the pun – be taken as read.

You can complete more tests of linguistic determinism, as well as tests of your intelligence, personality, moral values, thinking style, impulsivity, capacity for logical reasoning, susceptibility to visual and mental illusions, musical taste and preferences in a romantic partner in Ben Ambridge’s book Psy-Q, out now in the UK and US, and in translation in China and Turkey.

References

Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1991). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press.

Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology43(1), 1-22.

Heider, E. R. (1972). Universals in color naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology93(1), 10.

Levinson, S. C. (1997). Language and cognition: The cognitive consequences of spatial description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology,7(1), 98-131.

Find out more at http://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/wcs/data.html

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