Skip to main content

Cognitive representation of colour in bilinguals: The case of Greek blues*


A number of recent studies demonstrate that bilinguals with languages that differ in grammatical and lexical categories may shift their cognitive representation of those categories towards that of monolingual speakers of their second language. The current paper extended that investigation to the domain of colour in Greek–English bilinguals with different levels of bilingualism, and English monolinguals. Greek differentiates the blue region of colour space into a darker shade called ble and a lighter shade called ghalazio. Results showed a semantic shift of category prototypes with level of bilingualism and acculturation, while the way bilinguals judged the perceptual similarity between within- and cross-category stimulus pairs depended strongly on the availability of the relevant colour terms in semantic memory, and the amount of time spent in the L2-speaking country. These results suggest that cognition is tightly linked to semantic memory for specific linguistic categories, and to cultural immersion in the L2-speaking country.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Department of Linguistics and English Language, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2DG,
Hide All

I am grateful to Vivian Cook, Debi Roberson, Aneta Pavlenko and Terry Regier. Any faults that remain are entirely my own.

Hide All
Altarriba, J. (1992). The representation of translation equivalents in bilingual memory. In Harris, R. (ed.), Cognitive processing in bilinguals, pp. 157174. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Ameel, E., Storms, G., Malt, B. & Sloman, S. (2005). How bilinguals solve the naming problem. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 6080.
Andrews, D. (1994). The Russian color categories sinij and goluboj: An experimental analysis of their interpretation in the standard and émigré languages. Journal of Slavic Linguistics, 2, 928.
Androulaki, A., Pestaña, N. G., Lillo, J. & Davies, I. R. [L.] (2001). Greek colour terms: Evidence for a natural category boundary within blue. Perception #30, ECVP Abstract Supplement.
Athanasopoulos, P. (2006). Effects of the grammatical representation of number on cognition in bilinguals. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 9, 8996.
Athanasopoulos, P. (2007). Interaction between grammatical categories and cognition in bilinguals: The role of proficiency, cultural immersion, and language of instruction. Language and Cognitive Processes, 22, 689699.
Athanasopoulos, P. & Kasai, C. (2008). Language and thought in bilinguals: The case of grammatical number and nonverbal classification preferences. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29, 105123.
Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic colour terms: Their universality and evolution Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43, 122.
Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L. & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, syntax, and semantics. In Gentner, & Goldin-Meadow, (eds.), pp. 61–79.
Brown, R. & Lenneberg, E. (1954). A study in language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 454462.
Carroll, D. W. (2008). Psychology of language (5th edn.). Belmont, CA: ThomsonWadsworth.
Caskey-Sirmons, L. A. & Hickerson, N. P. (1977). Semantic shift and bilingualism: Variation in the colour terms of five languages. Anthropological Linguistics, 19, 358367.
Chen, J-Y. (2007). Do Chinese and English speakers think about time differently? Failure of replicating Boroditsky (2001). Cognition, 104, 427436.
Cook, V. J. (1997). The consequences of bilingualism for cognitive processing. In De Groot, A. M. B. & Kroll, J. F. (eds.), Tutorials in bilingualism: Psycholinguistic perspectives, pp. 279300. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Cook, V. J. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33, 185209.
Cook, V. J. (2002). Background to the L2 user. In Cook, (ed.) (2002a), pp. 1–31.
Cook, V. J. (ed.) (2002a). Portraits of the L2 user, pp. 131. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cook, V. J. (2003). The changing L1 in the L2 user's mind. In Cook, V. J.. (ed.), Effects of the second language on the first, pp. 118. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cook, V. J., Bassetti, B., Kasai, C., Sasaki, M. & Takahashi, J.A. (2006). Do bilinguals have different concepts? The case of shape and material in Japanese L2 users of English. International Journal of Bilingualism, 10, 137152.
Corbett, G. G. & Davies, I. R. L. (1995). Linguistic and behavioral measures for ranking basic colour terms. Studies in Language, 19, 301357.
Davidoff, J., Davies, I. [R. L.] & Roberson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature, 398, 203204.
Davies, I. R. L. & Corbett, G. G. (1997). A cross-cultural study of colour-grouping: Evidence for weak linguistic relativity. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 493517.
De Groot, A. M. B. (2000). On the source and nature of semantic and conceptual knowledge. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 3, 79.
De Groot, A. M. B. (2002). Lexical representation and lexical processing in the L2 user. In Cook, A (ed.) (2002a), pp. 32–63.
Ervin, S. (1961). Semantic shift in bilingualism. American Journal of Psychology, 74, 233241.
Francis, W. S. (1999). Cognitive integration of language and memory in bilinguals: Semantic representation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 193222.
Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (eds.) (2003). Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gleason, H. A. (1961). An introduction to descriptive linguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Gordon, P. (2004). Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science, 306, 496499.
Green, D. W. (1998). Bilingualism and thought. Psychologica Belgica, 38, 253278.
Hardin, C. L. & Maffi, L. (eds.) (1997). Color categories in thought and language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heider, E. R. & Olivier, D. C. (1972). The structure of the colour space in naming and memory for two languages. Cognitive Psychology, 3, 337354.
Hoffman, C., Lau, I. & Johnson, D. R. (1986). The linguistic relativity of person cognition: An English–Chinese comparison. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 10971105.
Howell, D. C. (2002). Statistical methods for psychology (5th edn.). Pacific Grove, CA: Duxbury Press.
Hunt, E. & Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: A cognitive psychology perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377389.
Imai, M. & Gentner, D. (1997). A crosslinguistic study of early word meaning: Universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition, 62, 169200.
Imai, M. & Mazuka, R. (2003). Re-evaluating linguistic relativity: Language-specific categories and the role of universal ontological knowledge in the construal of individuation. In Gentner, & Goldin-Meadow, (eds.), pp. 429–464.
Jameson, K. A. & Alvarado, N. (2003). Differences in color naming and color salience in Vietnamese and English. Color Research & Application, 28, 113138.
Jameson, K. A. & D'Andrade, R. (1997). It's not really red, green, yellow, blue: An inquiry into color space. In Hardin, A & Maffi, A (eds.), pp. 295–319.
January, D. & Kako, E. (2007). Re-evaluating evidence for linguistic relativity: Reply to Boroditsky (2001). Cognition, 104, 417426.
Kay, P. & Berlin, B. (1997). Science ≠ Imperialism: Response to Saunders and van Brackel. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 196201.
Kay, P., Berlin, B. & Merrifield, W. (1991). Biocultural implications of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 1, 1225.
Kay, P. & Regier, T. (2006). Language, thought, and color: Recent developments. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 5154.
Kay, P. & Regier, T. (2007). Color naming universals: The case of Berinmo. Cognition, 102, 289298.
Laws, G., Davies, I. [R. L.] & Andrews, C. (1995). Linguistic structure and non-linguistic cognition: English and Russian blues compared. Language and Cognitive Processes, 10, 5994.
Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Levelt, W. J. M., Roelofs, A. & Meyer, A. S. (1999). A theory of lexical access in speech production. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 175.
Levinson, S. C. (1996). Relativity in spatial conception and description. In Gumperz, J. J. & Levinson, S. C. (eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity, pp. 177202. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, S. C. (2001). Yeli Dnye and the theory of basic color terms. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 10, 355.
Levinson, S. C., Kita, S., Haun, D. B. M. & Rasch, B. H. (2002). Returning the tables: Language affects spatial reasoning. Cognition, 84, 155188.
Lucy, J. A. (1992). Grammatical categories and cognition: A case study of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lucy, J. A. (1997). The linguistics of “color”. In Hardin, & Maffi, (eds.), pp. 320–346.
Lucy, J. A. & Gaskins, S. (2001). Grammatical categories and the development of classification preferences: A comparative approach. In Bowerman, M. & Levinson, S. C. (eds.), Language acquisition and conceptual development, pp. 257283. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lucy, J. A. & Gaskins, S. (2003). Interaction of language type and referent type in the development of nonverbal classification preferences. In Gentner, & Goldin-Meadow, (eds.), pp. 465–492.
Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B. M. & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 108114.
Malt, B. C. & Sloman, S. A. (2003). Linguistic diversity and object naming by non-native speakers of English. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 6, 4667.
Nation, P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Newbury House/Harper Row.
Özgen, E. & Davies, I. R. L. (1998). Turkish color terms: Tests of Berlin and Kay's theory of color universals and linguistic relativity. Linguistics, 36, 919956.
Pavlenko, A. (1999). New approaches to concepts in bilingual memory. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2, 209230.
Pavlenko, A. (2005a). Bilingualism and thought. In De Groot, A. M. B. & Kroll, J. F. (eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches, pp. 433453. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pavlenko, A. (2005b). Emotions and multilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pavlenko, A. (2006). Bilingual selves. In Pavlenko, A. (ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression and representation, pp. 133. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Ratner, C. (1989). A sociohistorical critique of naturalistic theories of color perception. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10, 361373.
Regier, T., Kay, P. & Khetarpal, N. (2007). Color naming reflects optimal partitions of colour space. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 14361441.
Roberson, D. (2005). Color categories are culturally diverse in cognition as well as in language. Cross-Cultural Research, 39, 5671.
Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I. R. L. & Shapiro, L. (2004). The development of color categories in two languages: A longitudinal study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 554571.
Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I. R. L. & Shapiro, L. (2005). Colour categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 50, 378411.
Roberson, D., Davies, I. [R. L.] & Davidoff, J. (2000). Colour categories are not universal: Replications and new evidence from a Stone-age culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 369398.
Rosch-Heider, E. (1972). Universals in colour naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 93, 1020.
Sapir, E. (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Saunders, B. A. C. & van Brackel, J. (1997). Are there non-trivial constraints on colour categorisation? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20, 167178.
Uchikawa, K. & Boynton, R. M. (1987). Categorical color perception of Japanese observers: Comparison with that of Americans. Vision Research, 27, 18251833.
Whorf, B. L. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (Carroll, J. B., ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R. & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on colour discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 77807785.
Zollinger, H. (1988). Categorical color perception: Influence of cultural factors on the differentiation of primary and derived basic color terms in color naming by Japanese children. Vision Research, 28, 13791382.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 35
Total number of PDF views: 541 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2455 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd June 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.