The Fascinating Way That Words Can Change How We Perceive Colors


The colors we see in the world aren't only a function of our eyesight. The language we speak can impact the colors we recognize, as Lancaster University researchers Aina Casaponsa and Panos Athanasopoulos explain on The Conversation.

The number of words a given language has for colors can vary widely, from only a few—the Bassa language, spoken in Liberia, has two terms, one for the warm end of the color spectrum and one for the cool end—to languages like English (up to 11 terms) and Japanese (16 terms, as a 2017 study found).

Researchers have even proposed a hierarchy related to which colors a language names depending on the total terms it has. If a language only has two terms, they are almost always related to black and white (dark and light). If they have three, that third color is almost always red. And so on into green, yellow, and blue.

Which colors have names in a particular language influences the colors we see. Japanese, Russian, and Greek, for instance, include terms that differentiate between light blue and dark blue. While an English speaker might look at a sky blue shirt and a navy blue shirt and say, "Look, a pair of blue shirts!" a Japanese speaker would disagree, just as we might disagree with someone who speaks Bassa about whether red, orange, and yellow are all one color. However, if you spend enough time immersed in a language that has fewer color terms, it appears that the way you describe color may narrow—according to one study, Greek speakers who spend a lot of time in the UK tend to stop distinguishing between two different blues, ghalazio and ble, and begin lumping them into a single category of blue.

The impact goes beyond shirts, of course. While modern Japanese has two distinct words for blue and green, Old Japanese had one term for both of them, ao. This historic link between the two colors still exists in some uses. Japanese stoplights use ao as the color for "go"—meaning that sometimes, they use blue instead of green. Several other languages historically had one term that can refer to either green or blue—what linguists call "grue"— including Vietnamese, Welsh, and Pashto.

It seems that in general, we are better at distinguishing between warm colors like red and yellow than cool colors like blue and green. In an October 2017 study, cognitive scientists found that across languages and cultures, people tend to find it easier to communicate about warm colors than cool when given a grid of colored chips. The researchers hypothesized that the colors we are able to describe have to do with what's important to us: "Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored." They also suggested that the reason some languages develop more color words than others has to do with industrialization.

After studying Bolivian Spanish speakers, the Amazonian hunter-gatherer group called Tsimane' that has relatively few color categories, and English speakers in Boston, researchers found that the Tsimane' people did not often describe familiar natural objects (like, say, an unripe banana) using color, but they used more color words to describe artificially colored objects (like a red cup). Industrialization, they hypothesized, increases how useful language for color is, since the only way to distinguish between certain objects (plastic cups, for instance) might be by their color.

[h/t BBC]

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.