A Colour Sorting Task Reveals the Limits of the Universalist/Relativist Dichotomy: Colour Categories Can Be Both Language Specific and Perceptual

Journal of Cognition and Culture 8 (3-4):211-233 (2008)
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Abstract
We designed a new protocol requiring French adult participants to group a large number of Munsell colour chips into three or four groups. On one, relativist, view, participants would be expected to rely on their colour lexicon in such a task. In this framework, the resulting groups should be more similar to French colour categories than to other languages categories. On another, universalist, view, participants would be expected to rely on universal features of perception. In this second framework, the resulting groups should match colour categories of three and four basic terms languages. In this work, we first collected data to build an accurate map of French colour terms categories. We went on testing how native French speakers spontaneously sorted a set of randomly presented coloured chips and, in line with the relativist prediction, we found that the resulting colour groups were more similar to French colour categories than to three and four basic terms languages. However, the same results were obtained in a verbal interference condition, suggesting that participants rely on language specific and nevertheless perceptual, colour categories. Collectively, these results suggest that the universalist/relativist dichotomy is a too narrow one.
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