August 2009
Volume 9, Issue 8
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   August 2009
Visual search for colors as a test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Author Affiliations
  • Angela M Brown
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University
  • Delwin T Lindsey
    Department of Psychology, Ohio State University-Mansfield
  • Renee S Rambeau
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University
  • Heather A Shamp
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University
Journal of Vision August 2009, Vol.9, 366. doi:
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      Angela M Brown, Delwin T Lindsey, Renee S Rambeau, Heather A Shamp; Visual search for colors as a test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):366.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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The Sapir-Whorf “linguistic relativity” hypothesis holds that language controls other cognitive processes, especially perception. Specifically, observers perceive color categorically because of the color names in their language. Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Gilbert et al. (PNAS, 2006) reported that visual search for a colored target stimulus was ∼30 msec faster when it was categorically different from its distractors (e.g., a blue target among green distractors) than when the target and distractor were categorically the same (green target, green distractors or blue target, blue distractors). Furthermore, this effect was restricted to the right visual field, suggesting that it is related to language. Here, we replicated and extended this result.

We measured saccadic latency (Tobii eyetracker) on right-handed observers, who viewed 12 disks (one target, 11 distractors) arrayed around a circle, starting in the center and looking at the target color quickly but accurately. The colors were at 170°-225° in CIELAB color space, at constant maximum saturation; targets and distractors were separated by ΔE∼11 (15° in CIELAB color space). We measured each observer's green-to-blue color boundary using color naming and MLDS, a perceptual scaling method.

Globally, we found a large effect of color on search time. Discrimination between our bluest stimuli (210°–225° in color space) was slowest (∼0.9 sec), and discrimination throughout our range of greenish colors (170°–200°) was ∼400 msec faster (∼0.5 sec). The broad global minimum was ∼192° (“green”, according to our subjects). There was a small (∼40 msec) cross-category advantage near Gilbert's green-blue boundary, compared to Gilbert's neighboring colors. However, that effect was not reliable across our observers, it did not correspond reliably to individual observers' blue-to-green boundaries, and it was not reliably larger in the right visual field.

We did not find any reliable support for Whorfian categorical perception of colors near the blue-green boundary.

Brown, A. M. Lindsey, D. T. Rambeau, R. S. Shamp, H. A. (2009). Visual search for colors as a test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 9(8):366, 366a,, doi:10.1167/9.8.366. [CrossRef]

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