December 2019
Volume 19, Issue 15
Open Access
OSA Fall Vision Meeting Abstract  |   December 2019
Lexical and non-lexical color categorization and the universality of color understanding
Author Affiliations
  • Delwin T. Lindsey
    Ohio State University
Journal of Vision December 2019, Vol.19, 3. doi:
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      Delwin T. Lindsey; Lexical and non-lexical color categorization and the universality of color understanding. Journal of Vision 2019;19(15):3.

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

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Color lexicons vary greatly in the numbers of color terms they contain, yet there are striking regularities in how people around the world name colors. This has suggested to many investigators that there is a universal mental representation of color that guides lexical color category formation in every world language. To examine this idea, we have studied the cross-cultural aspects of color naming by comparing responses of English- and Somali-speaking observers in two experiments.

In the first experiment -- color decomposition -- observers named, in their own language, the elemental Hering sensations present in the color appearance of each color sample, but did not rate their proportions. We used those data to look for possible links between an observer's color lexicon and Hering's color-opponent representation of color (Kay & McDaniel 1976).

In our second experiment -- sequential n-sorts -- observers sorted palettes of color samples into n=2, 3, …, N “piles” of colors, without requiring that observers name the categories defining their piles. We examined Boster's (1986) hypothesis that sequential color sorting reveals a universal non-lexical hierarchical representation of color that guides color lexicon evolution.

The color decomposition and color sorting results reveal cross-cultural similarities in the mental representations of color in our two groups of observers, but also striking differences. I will show how these results challenge both the “perceptual landmarks” and the alternative “efficient communication” approaches to understanding color lexicon formation.


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