Culture, Language and Thought: Field Studies on Colour Concepts

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Arnold Groh Technical University of Berlin, Technical University of Berlin Germany p.o. Box fh4-3, D-10623 Berlin

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In a series of studies the assumption of a lack of colour concepts in indigenous societies, as proposed by Berlin and Kay and others, was examined. The research took place in the form of minimally invasive field encounters with indigenous subjects in South East Asia and in India, as well as in West, Central, and South Africa. Subjects were screened for colour blindness using the Ishihara and Pflüger-Trident tests. Standardised colour tablets had to be designated in the indigenous languages; these terms were later translated by native speakers of the indigenous languages into a European language. The indigenous subjects were able to name the colours presented. Indigenous vs. globalised cultural factors were reflected in the use of reference objects for naming colours. Both metonymical and non-metonymical indigenous colour names did not follow a stage pattern as Berlin and Kay and others have proposed. The high precision of indigenous colour names corresponds both to the precision of experts’ colour names in the industrial culture, and to the highly precise grammar that characterises indigenous languages. It is concluded that cognitive categorisation of visual perception takes place regardless of the cultural context, and that former misunderstandings resulted from inappropriate methodological designs.

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