Volume 5: pp. 100-116

Cross-species Assessment of the Linguistic Origins of Color Categories

by Jules Davidoff,
University of London

Joël Fagot,
CNRS-Université de Provence

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This article considers the relation between language and categorical perception (CP) of color. Two opposite theories are reviewed, the universalist position arguing that categories are universal with an essentially biological origin, and the relativist position that holds that color categories are essentially arbitrary and derive from color terms of the speaker’s language. A review of the human literature presents developmental, neuropsychological, cross-cultural, neuro-imaging and computer simulation evidence that CP of colors has at least partly linguistic origins. As animal studies also contribute to this debate, we then review evidence of CP in the visual and auditory domains, and pinpoint the inconsistencies of the literature. To make a direct comparison between humans and monkeys, experimental studies compared humans and baboons for their color thresholds and in a recognition memory task designed to assess CP of colors. Only humans showed better betweencategory than within-category discrimination performance, suggesting species differences in the processing of a color continuum. That study along with some of our previous research supports the theory of a linguistic origin for color categories in humans.

Keywords: color, perception, categorization, language

Davidoff, J., & Fagot, J. (2010). Cross-species Assessment of the Linguistic Origins of Color Categories. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 5, 100-116. Retrieved from http://comparative-cognition-and-behavior-reviews.org/ doi:10.3819/ccbr.2010.50005