In a series of posts, I’ve been discussing constraints on the evolution of colour terms. In the last post, I discussed Perceptual Warping. Here, a further adjustment to the assumptions about perceptual space is suggested.
The assumption that all perceptual spaces are the same may be unrealistic and may favour Universalism (see Levinson, 2000). To begin with, colour vision and colour concepts develop during ontogeny (Bornstein, Kessen & Weiskopf, 1976, Roberson, Davidoff, Davies & Shapiro, 2004). Secondly, there may be an underestimation of the variation in colour term systems across cultures (see section 5.2.5). Going back to the example of Tzotzil, colour terms seem to be intricately related in a way that, for example, ‘blue’ and ‘green’ in English seem not to be. This prompts a third way of approaching the formation of colour categories. An individual begins with no conceptual space, but learns relationships between colour terms and perceptions. For example, learning that ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’ are as different as light with 640nm and 450nm wavelengths. By using an embodied, relational approach to colour categories, one can construct relationships between terms based on any perceivable feature. This could include brilliance, reflectance or the physical structure of the object. Therefore, a banana looks yellow because its colour is understood in terms of its structure, as well as its spectral properties. This is a more stable approach to object identification, since structures are usually stable, while colour is not. It would also fit with the grammaticalisation of colour terms to extend to other domains. For example, the Tzotzil sak-vilan, meaning ‘pastel’ originates from the fading of colours on fabric from fraying (MacKeigan & Muth, 2006). Constructing relationships between words based on the relationships between the perceptual properties of their referents would then be part of a general learning mechanism which facilitated the learning of all concepts.
Levinson, S. (2000). Yeli Dnye and the Theory of Basic Color Terms Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 10 (1), 3-55 DOI: 10.1525/jlin.2000.10.1.3
Bornstein, M., Kessen, W., & Weiskopf, S. (1976). Color vision and hue categorization in young human infants. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 2 (1), 115-129 DOI: 10.1037/0096-1522.214.171.124
Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I., & Shapiro, L. (2004). The Development of Color Categories in Two Languages: A Longitudinal Study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133 (4), 554-571 DOI: 10.1037/0096-34126.96.36.1994