Katie Wagner and David Barner
Human experience of color results from a complex interplay of perceptual and linguistic systems. At the lowest level of perception, the human visual system transforms the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum into a rich, continuous three-dimensional experience of color. Despite our ability to perceptually discriminate millions of different color shades, most languages categorize color into a number of discrete color categories. While the meanings of color words are constrained by perception, perception does not fully define them. Once color words are acquired, they may in turn influence our memory and processing speed for color, although it is unlikely that language influences the lowest levels of color perception.
One approach to examining the relationship between perception and language in forming our experience of color is to study children as they acquire color language. Children produce color words in speech for many months before acquiring adult meanings for color words. Research in this area has focused on whether children’s difficulties stem from (a) an inability to identify color properties as a likely candidate for word meanings, or alternatively (b) inductive learning of language-specific color word boundaries. Lending plausibility to the first account, there is evidence that children more readily attend to object traits like shape, rather than color, as likely candidates for word meanings. However, recent evidence has found that children have meanings for some color words before they begin to produce them in speech, indicating that in fact, they may be able to successfully identify color as a candidate for word meaning early in the color word learning process. There is also evidence that prelinguistic infants, like adults, perceive color categorically. While these perceptual categories likely constrain the meanings that children consider, they cannot fully define color word meanings because languages vary in both the number and location of color word boundaries. Recent evidence suggests that the delay in color word acquisition primarily stems from an inductive process of refining these boundaries.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
The concept of innateness (innate is first recorded in the period 1375–1425; from Latin innātus “inborn”) relates to types of behavior and knowledge that are present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization), prior to any sensory experience with the environment. The term has been applied to two general types of qualities. The first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological makeup. While both types of innatism have a long history in human philosophy and science (e.g., Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (Lorenz’s incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on his boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically faced with a greater sense of skepticism, and touches on a fundamental question in epistemological philosophy: Can reason be based (to a certain extent) on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and is independent of experience? The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s breakthrough nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language and the famous “Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus.” The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite collection of rules that, in principle, may generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus, the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.