The Experience And Terminology Of Colour

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Looking up at the sky, I can’t imagine describing it any other way than blue. Nor can I imagine not having a word to describe the colour of a bright cloudless sky or better said, having a word to describe it, but simultaneously using this word to also describe the colour of grass or lemons. However, this is the case for many languages, with some languages distinguishing as little as 3 colour categories: black (dark), white (light) and red.

Some languages (such as Pomo, a small family of Native Californian languages) differentiate between as little as 3 colour categories: black (dark), white (light) and red. I came across a very interesting video by Vox, an alternative news website, dedicated to why so many languages invented words for colours in the same order.

In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book on a pretty ground breaking idea: that every culture in history, when they developed their languages, invented words for colours in the exact same order. They claimed to know this based off of a simple colour identification test, where 20 respondents identified 330 coloured chips by name. If a language had six words, they were always black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were always black, white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always black, white, and red, and so on. The theory was revolutionary – and it shaped our understanding of how colour terminologies emerge.’ (source: Vox)

So not all languages have the same number of basic colour categories. English being on the higher spectrum with recognising 11 colours, but topped by Russian vocabulary which contains 12. Thinking about this brings up many interesting questions. In the case of the Pomo language with its mere 3 colours for instance, why would a word for red come before a word for blue? Does a native Pomo speaker see the world solely in shades of dark, light and the red of blood and earth? Is a clear blue morning sky nothing but a shade of light and a dark starry night considered dark? Is the red of the blood that runs through our veins and the red of the earth that feeds us - both symbols of life, the only colour that matters and therefore worth acknowledging?

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It took me several times of watching the video to kind of grasp the concept of it and imagine what a world with only 3 labelled colours would look like.

I also found an interesting article that discusses the experience of an anthropologist that found that a small tribe in the heart Peru that completely lacks any notion of colour, contradicting the research mentioned in the previous video about how every culture in history invented words for colours in the exact same order:

‘In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small coloured chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What colour is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of colour. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn.

This moment in July 2014 was just one among many similar experiences Surrallés had during a total of three years living among the Candoshi since 1991. His fieldwork led Surrallés to the startling conclusion that these people simply don’t have colour words: reliable descriptors for the basic colours in the world around them. Candoshi children don’t learn the colours of the rainbow because their community doesn’t have words for them.’ (source: Sapiens)

So apart from experiencing and describing colour differently around the world there are also cases in which people don’t even seem to perceive colour or find the perception of colour so irrelevant that they have not developed terms in which to describe them. This brings us to an even more fundamental question: Is colour perception a universal human experience or not?

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It is interesting to think of colour being a non-essential tool to describe things, as in our Western manufacturing society many times the only way to differentiate one identical item for another is its colour. It’s pointed out in the article referenced above that identical things apart from colour such as a red shirt vs a blue shirt, just don’t exist in the natural world. A part of the population simply isn’t exposed to these unnatural objects. Two trees for instance can be distinguished from each other probably more accurately by size, shape and texture rather than by colour.

In the end I do think colour perception is a universal human experience but the way different people interact with colour and assign importance to the concept of it, varies greatly. You may register that the leaf of a tree is a green shade, but it doesn’t seem very different from the colour of the lake as they are varieties of natural shades. Therefore making comparisons based on these shades seems inefficient and therefore irrelevant and if anyone asked you to describe that leaf you would speak of its shape, size and texture.

Maybe next time I speak of the sky I will neglect its hue for once and try to convey its grandeur differently, knowing that somewhere around the world someone else manages perfectly without having to mention that the sky above our heads has a different colour from the grass beneath our feet.

image credits: Vox