The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 9/14 - Ted Gibson (MIT)

Speaker: Ted Gibson (MIT)
joint work with Richard Futrell, Julian Jara-Ettinger, Kyle Mahowald, Leon Bergen, Sivalogeswaran Ratnasigam, Mitchell Gibson, Steven T. Piantadosi, and Bevil R. Conway
Title: Color naming across languages reflects color use
Date and time: Thursday, September 14, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

What determines how languages categorize colors? We analyzed results of the World Color Survey (WCS) of 110 languages to show that despite gross differences across languages, communication of chromatic chips is always better for warm colors (yellows/reds) than cool colors (blues/greens). We present the first analysis of color statistics in a large databank of natural images curated by human observers for salient objects, and show that objects tend to have warm rather than cool colors. These results suggest that the cross-linguistic similarity in color-naming efficiency reflects colors of universal usefulness, and provide an account of a principle (color use) that governs how color categories come about. We show that potential methodological issues with the WCS do not corrupt information-theoretic analyses, by collecting original data using two extreme versions of the color-naming task, in three groups: the Tsimane’, a remote Amazonian hunter-gatherer isolate; Bolivian-Spanish speakers; and English speakers. These data also enabled us to test another prediction of the color-usefulness hypothesis: that differences in color categorization between languages are caused by differences in overall usefulness of color to a culture. In support, we found that color naming among Tsimane’ had relatively low communicative efficiency, and the Tsimane’ were less likely to use color terms when describing familiar objects. Color-naming among Tsimane’ was boosted when naming artificially colored objects compared to natural objects, suggesting that industrialization promotes color usefulness.