The Relationship Between Language and the Environment: Information Theory Shows Why We Have Only Three Lightness Terms

RJ Baddeley, D Attewell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The surface reflectance of objects is highly variable, ranging between 4% for, say, charcoal and 90% for fresh snow. When stimuli are presented simultaneously, people can discriminate hundreds of levels of visual intensity. Despite this, human languages possess a maximum of just three basic terms for describing lightness. In English, these are white (or light), black (or dark), and gray. Why should this be? Using information theory, combined with estimates of the distribution of reflectances in the natural world and the reliability of lightness recall over time, we show that three lightness terms is the optimal number for describing surface reflectance properties in a modern urban or indoor environment. We also show that only two lightness terms would be required in a forest or rural environment.
Translated title of the contributionThe Relationship Between Language and the Environment: Information Theory Shows Why We Have Only Three Lightness Terms
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1100 - 1107
Number of pages7
JournalPsychological Science
Volume20
Issue number9
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2009

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