If you lack words for blue and green, do you see them as the same color?

A famous hypothesis proposed that language shapes the way someone sees the world. But in new research, scientists find that babies can tell the difference between color categories – thought to be a distinction of language – even before they can speak.

Matt Masin/The Orange County Register/AP/File
A rainbow casts its glow behind a palm tree near the Seal Beach Pier in Seal Beach, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. Most of California saw sunny skies again Thursday after days of powerful El Nino-driven storms drenched the region.

Does language determine the way we see the world? That's what early 20th-century linguists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir argued. In what came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, they proposed that language determines, or at least strongly influences, how human beings think and how they see the world.

If the pair was right, your view of the world would hinge on the vocabulary of your native language. 

To test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, many scientists have turned to color. Does the way a person's language categorizes colors influence the way that person actually understands colors? For example, does the difference between blue and green register more to someone than, say, light green and dark green? 

Researchers separate the two abilities – color perception and language – by studying babies who haven't learned to speak yet in a new study.

And, for these prelinguistic babies, blue and green were different. 

This "is the first evidence, to our knowledge, that categorical color perception has a universal starting point prior to language acquisition," study lead author Jiale Yang writes in an email to the Monitor. 

The research team showed babies between five and seven months old two different sets of geometrical figures. In one set, the shapes alternated colors between green and blue. In the other, they changed between two different shades of green.

As the shapes changed color, the scientists watched the infants' brain activity.

When the color changed between categories, from blue to green, the babies displayed increased brain activity. But that didn't happen with the two shades of green.

"These results indicated that different color categories are differently encoded in prelinguistic infants, as similar as the brain activities of adults, which implies that color categories may develop in the visual system before language acquisition," Dr. Yang says. The team's results are reported in a paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But this doesn't exactly disprove the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Language can still have influence.

As Yang says, categorical color distinctions still "may be later shaped by language learning."

And the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis isn't limited to color. Language could influence our perceptions of the world in a myriad of ways.

For example, different languages can change a conversation simply by subtle implications of words.

As Guy Deutscher, a linguistics and cultures researcher, wrote in an article for The New York Times Magazine in 2010:

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that "I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor." You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisineNachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern.

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