There’s a Word for That: What nail polish can teach us about color perception

Let’s start with a simple question. What color is the square below? Is it blue or green? This question was posed to ISCC members in the Winter 2014 Issue (#465) of the ISCC News, and the results were interesting. Men were split 60/40 in slight favor of blue, whereas women were more in agreement – 75/25 in favor of blue. This survey points to an interesting divide, not only between men and women, but also between colors on the boundaries between color categories. Blue and green are considered primary colors in both the additive and opponent color systems, but they are often conflated and sometimes difficult to distinguish, and the reason might have something to do with language.

Fig 1. Image: ISCC News, #465

Research has found that women have, on average, a richer and more descriptive color vocabulary than men; they identify and match names to colors quicker and more accurately [1]. Whereas men might identify something as green, women are more apt to add modifiers such as chartreuse, moss, olive and emerald; what men might call purple, women identify as maroon, eggplant, lilac and lavender etc. (A fun and interactive data display can be found online.) It is suggested that such gender differences in color identification and description are a result of socialization in traditional feminine behaviors associated with fashion, hair color, nail polish and make-up. But does the ability to identify and describe such differences amount to any qualitative differences in perception? Does language affect color perception?

A longstanding debate in linguistics, psychology and color science, involves the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which states that our language shapes how we perceive (categorize) the world. People who have different semantic categories experience and perceive the world differently. This position is contrasted with the more widely accepted position that our categories and language are shaped by experience, not the other way around. In the field of color studies, this more universalist approach, was established in Berlin and Kay’s landmark study, Basic Color Terms (1969).

However, researchers are finding that the distinction between these two positions might not be so cut and dry. There is now considerable evidence that language has some effect on the perception of color. Research based on categorical perception, the ability to distinguish colors more easily when they are cross-category (such as ‘blue’ and ‘green’) than when they are within-category (different shades of the same color), is well established. Tests of English, which distinguishes blue from green, and Tarahumara, an Uto-Aztec language of Northwest Mexico, which has only one term for both, show that “The presence of the blue-green lexical category boundary appears to cause speakers of English to exaggerate the subjective distances of colors close to this boundary. Tarahumara, which does not lexicalize the blue-green contrast, does not show this distorting effect [2]”. If a language has separate names for blue and green then their differences will be exaggerated in terms of psychological distance. On the other hand, if a language has only one term covering both, such as Tarahumara, Himba or Berinmo, then those differences are less pronounced [3].

Fig.2 Lexical categories influence perception. (a) Print-rendered versions of the four colors used. (b) Sample display for the visual search task. Image source: Aubrey L. Gilbert et al. PNAS 2006;103:489-494

This was followed up with examining reaction times to identify color targets embedded within a circular tile array (fig.2) [4] . Researchers found that if target was cross-category (B and C), it was easier identify than if it was within-category (A and B). This same dynamic has also been demonstrated in languages that have more basic categories than English, such as Korean [5] and Russian [6], both of which have two separate categories for ‘blue’.

Fig.3. (c) In the no-interference condition, RTs were faster for the between-category pair and slower for the within-category pairs when targets appeared in the RVF compared with when they appeared in the LVF. (d) Effects were reversed with verbal interference. . *, P < 0.05, two-tailed t test, df = 10; ns, nonsignificant. Values are mean ± SEM. Image source: Aubrey L. Gilbert et al. PNAS 2006;103:489-494

But then something funny happened. Researchers noticed that the difference in reaction times differed remarkably depending on which side of the display the target was on [7]. Categorical perception occurred faster in the right visual field (RVF) than in the left (fig.3c). Since the right visual field is lateralized to the Left Hemisphere of the brain – responsible for the lion’s share of verbal processing, it stood to reason that language was involved. When a standard interference task, requiring verbal resources, was applied (memorizing an eight digit number) the relationship reversed itself (fig. 3d), reinforcing the idea that the quicker response times in the RVF have a verbal basis. For Paul Kay, of Berlin and Kay fame, these results suggest that language does play a role, at least in half of what we see, or that the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is half right! [8] Mike Brill’s Hue Angles included a column by Kay and Regier on this very topic in the ISCC News for Mar/April 2009 (#438a).

So how does this relate to male-female color experience?

I am not aware of any similar studies that test for a gender-based categorical perception. But if women have a more descriptive vocabulary for color and more words lead to a more nuanced perception, then it stands to reason that if you want to develop your powers of color perception, it might be prudent to invest in some nail polish - at least for the right side of your hands!


1. Greene, K., Gynther, M. (1995). Blue Versus Periwinkle: Color identification and gender. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 80, 27-32

2. Kay, P. Kempton, W. (1984):. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist, 86, 65-79

3. Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I. & Shapiro, L. (2005). Colour categories in Himba: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 50, 378–411

4. Gilbert, A. L., Regier, T. Kay, P., Ivry, R. B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 10; 103(2): 489–494.

5. Roberson, D., Pak, H., Hanley, J.R. (2008). Categorical perception of color in the left and right hemisphere is verbally mediated: evidence from Korean. Cognition, 107, 752–762

6. Winawer, J., et al. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 19, 7780-5.

7. Gilbert, A. L., Regier, T. Kay, P., Ivry, R. B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 10; 103(2): 489–494.

8. Regier, T., Kay, P. (2009). Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right.

Trends Cogn Sci. Oct; 13(10): 439–446. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.07.001


© 2016 Carl Jennings -