Colours vs. Phonemes

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Mar 08 1997 - 17:14:41 GMT

> From: "Liz Lee" <>
> I've read that the inability to perceive certain colours may also be
> acquired, for instance people living in equatorial regions are
> exposed to higher amounts of ultra violet light which somehow damages
> the receptors and prevents them from distinguishing blue/green/black.
> Also that there may be dietary factors involved.

Yes, but I wouldn't want that to be thought of as "acquired" in the
sense of "learned" -- any more than the loss of high frequency
hearing from loud concerts is "acquired" in any but the trivial sense.
Ditto for diet.

> I was wondering
> whether one might lose the ability to perceive specific colours if
> there is an absence of that colour in their environment (a bit like
> the Japanese' inability to perceive "r" or, like the kittens only
> exposed to vertical lines not being able to see horizontal ones). Is
> this silly, or is there any evidence to support this? Thanks Liz

I don't know about such evidence for colours; on the contrary, the
evidence with colour is that people see it essentially the same way
in vastly different cultures. But the cultural differences are usually
in what they call the colours, and how many of the colour boundaries
(in the rainbow, say) they actually use in their language and

That doesn't mean that there could not be an l/r effect for colours.
But remember that language is a cultural product that can differ
systematically from culture to culture, but the colours around us are
pretty universal to all cultures. A better bet might be the perception
of 2-D photographs in cultures who have no experience with them.
They might conceivably have lost the capacity to see them as 3-D

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