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Free-Sorting of Colors Across Cultures: Are there Universal Grounds for Grouping?

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These studies examined naming and free-sorting behavior by informants speaking a wide range of languages, from both industrialized and traditional cultures. Groups of informants, whose color vocabularies varied from 5 to 12 basic terms, were given an unconstrained color grouping task to investigate whether there are systematic differences between cultures in grouping behavior that mirror linguistic differences and, if there are not, what underlying principles might explain any universal tendencies. Despite large differences in color vocabulary, there were substantial similarities in grouping behavior across language groups, and substantial within-language variation across informants. It seems that all informants group stimuli based on some criterion of perceptual similarity, but those with large color vocabularies are more likely to group stimuli in line with their basic color terms. The data are best accounted for by a hybrid system that combines a universal principle of grouping by similarity with culture-specific category salience.

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