The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II)

Untitled (Cubes) by Scott Taylor

Update: This post was an Editor’s pick by Cristy Gelling at Science Seeker, and was included in Bora Zivkovic‘s top 10 science blog posts of the week.

Lately, I’ve got colors on the brain. In part I of this post I talked about the common roads that different cultures travel down as they name the colors in their world. And I came across the idea that color names are, in some sense, culturally universal. The way that languages carve up the visual spectrum isn’t arbitrary. Different cultures with independent histories often end up with the same colors in their vocabulary. Of course, the word that they use for red might be quite different – red, rouge, laal, whatever. Yet the concept of redness, that vivid region of the visual spectrum that we associate with fire, strawberries, blood or ketchup, is something that most cultures share.

So what? Does any of this really matter, when it comes to actually navigating the world? Shakespeare famously said that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. So does red by another name look just as deep? And what if you didn’t have a name for red? Would it lose any of its luster? Would it be any harder to spot those red berries in the bush?

Rose coloured glasses by jan_clickr

This question goes back to an idea by the American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who suggested that our language determines how we perceive the world. In his own words,

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar

This idea is known as linguistic relativity, and is commonly described by the blatantly false adage that Eskimos have a truckload of words to describe snow. (The number of Eskimo words for snow probably tells you more about gullibility and sloppy fact-checking than it does about language.)

Hyperbole aside, color actually provides a neat way to test Whorf’s hypothesis. A study in 1984 by Paul Kay and colleagues compared English speakers to members of the Tarahumara tribe of Northwest Mexico. The Tarahumara language falls into the Uto-Aztecan language family, a Native American language family spoken near the mountains of North America. And like most world languages, the Tarahumara language doesn’t distinguish blue from green.

The Tarahumara language falls among the southern Uto-Aztecan languages. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The researchers discovered that, compared to the Tarahumara, English speakers do indeed see blue and green as more distinct. Having a word for blue seems to make the color ‘pop’ a little more in our minds. But it was a fragile effect, and any verbal distraction would make it disappear. The implication is that language may affect how we see the world. Somehow, the linguistic distinction between blue and green may heighten the perceived difference between them. Smells like Whorf’s idea to me.

Do you see what I see? A young girl from the Tarahumara tribe, whose language doesn’t distinguish green from blue. Photo credit: Fano Quiriego

That was 1984. What have we learnt since? In 2006, a study led by Aubrey Gilbert made a rather surprising discovery. Imagine that you’re a subject in their experiment. You’re asked to stare at the cross in the middle of the screen. A circle of colored tiles appear. One of the tiles is different from the others. Sometimes it will be on the left, and other times on the right. Your task is to spot whether the odd-color-out is on the left or on the right. Keep your eyes on the cross.

That’s easy enough. What’s the catch?

Well, sometimes you’ll also get a picture that looks like this.

See the difference? In one case, English speakers have different words for the two colors, blue and green. So there’s a concept that builds a wall between them. But in other cases like above, the two colors are conceptually the same.

Here’s what the researchers wanted to know. If you have a word to distinguish two colors, does that make you any better at telling them apart? More generally, does the linguistic baggage that we carry effect how we perceive the world? This study was designed to address Whorf’s idea head on.

As it happens, Whorf was right. Or rather, he was half right.

The researchers found that there is a real, measurable difference in how we perform on these two tasks. In general, it takes less time to identify that odd blue square compared to the odd green one.  This makes sense to anyone who’s ever tried looking for a tennis ball in the grass. It’s not that hard, but I’d rather the ball be blue. In once case you are jumping categories (blue versus green), and in the other, staying with a category (green versus green).

However, and this is where things start to get a bit strange, this result only holds if the differently colored square was in the right half of the circle. If it was in the left half (as in the example images above), then there’s no difference in reaction times – it takes just as long to spot the odd blue as the odd green.  It seems that color categories only matter in the right half of your visual field!

The graph above summarizes the results of this experiment. In red are the reaction times for making comparisons within a category (think green among greens). In yellow are comparisons where you straddle a category (think blue among greens). And what you see is that your performance on these two types of tasks differs in the right visual field (RVF), but not in the left visual field (LVF). It’s easier to tell apart colors with different names, but only if they are to your right. Keep in mind that this is a very subtle effect, the difference in reaction time is a few hundredths of a second.

So what’s causing this lopsidedness?  Well, if you know something about how the brain works, you might have already guessed. The crucial point is that everything that we see in the right half of our vision is processed in the left hemisphere of our brain, and everything we see in the left half is processed by the right hemisphere. And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. So perhaps the language savvy half of our brain is helping us out.

It’s not just English speakers that show this asymmetry. Koreans are familiar with the colors yeondu and chorok. An English speaker would call them both green (yeondu perhaps being a more yellowish green). But in Korean it’s not a matter of shade, they are both basic colors. There is no word for green that includes both yeondu and chorok.

To the left of the dotted line is yeondu, and to the right chorok. Is it still as easy to spot the odd square in the circle?

And so imagine taking the same color ID test, but this time with yeondu and chorok instead of blue and green. A group of researchers ran this experiment. They discovered that among those who were the fastest at identifying the odd color, English speakers showed no left brain / right brain distinction, whereas Korean speakers did. It’s plausible that their left brain was attuned to the distinction between yeondu and chorok.

But how do we know that language is the key here? Back to the previous study. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment, but this time threw in a verbal distraction. The subjects were asked to memorize a word before each color test. The idea was to keep their language circuits distracted. And at the same time, other subjects were shown an image to memorize, not a word. In this case, it’s a visual distraction, and the language part of the brain needn’t be disturbed.

They found that when you’re verbally distracted, it suddenly becomes harder to separate blue from green (you’re slower at straddling color categories). In fact the results showed that people found this more difficult then separating two shades of green. However, if the distraction is visual, not verbal, things are different. It becomes easy to spot the blue among green, so you’re faster at straddling categories.

All of this is only true for your left brain. Meanwhile, your right brain is rather oblivious to these categories (until, of course, the left brain bothers to inform it). The conclusion is that language is somehow enhancing your left brain’s ability to discern different colors with different names. Cultural forces alter our perception in ever so subtle a way, by gently tugging our visual leanings in different directions. Whorf was right, but only when it comes to half your brain.

Floral Gaze. Screen print by Scott Campbell

Imagine a world without color names. You lived in such a world once, when you were an infant. Do you remember what it was like? Anna Franklin is a psychologist who is particularly interested in where color categories come from. She studies color recognition in infants, as a window into how the brain organizes color.

Here she is discussing her work in this incredible clip from a BBC Horizon documentary called ‘Do you see what I see?‘. It’s 8 minutes long, but definitely worth it. It starts off with infants, and then cuts to the Himba tribe who have a highly unusual color naming system. You’ll see them taking the color wheel test, with very surprising results.

Surprisingly, many children take a remarkably long time to learn their color names. By the time they can name dozens of objects, they still struggle with basic colors. A two year old may know that a banana is yellow or an apple is red, but if you show them a blue cup, odds are even that they’ll call it red. And this confusion can persist even after encountering hundreds of examples, until as late as the age of four. There have been studies that show that very young sighted children are as likely to identify a color correctly as blind children of the same age. They rely on their experience, rather than recognize the color outright.

Even Charles Darwin, who had a tendency to think of his children as in-house experimental subjects, was alarmed with their slow progress in this domain*.

I attended carefully to the mental development of my young children, and with two, or as I believe three of them, soon after they had come to the age when they knew the names of all common objects, I was startled by observing that they seeed quite incapable of affixing the right names to the colours in coloured engravings, although I tried repeatedly to teach them. I distinctly remember declaring that they were colour-blind, but this afterwards proved a groundless fear. [..] Therefore the difficulty, which young children experience either in distinguishing, or more probably in naming colours, seems to deserve further attention.

He was on to something here. The big question is when children learn their color words, does their perception of the world change? Anna Franklin (who we met in the video above) and colleagues took on this question. Working with toddlers aged two to four, they split them into two groups. There were the namers, who could reliably distinguish blue from green, and the politely-named learners, who couldn’t. The researchers repeated the color circle experiment on these children. Rather than have them press a button (probably not a good idea), they tracked the infants’ eyes to see how long it took them to spot the odd square.

As toddlers learn the names of colors, a remarkable transformation is taking place inside their heads. Before they learn their color names, they are better at distinguishing color categories in their right brain (Left Visual Field). In a sense, their right brain understands the difference between blue and green, even before they have the words for it. But once they acquire words for blue and green, this ability jumps over to the left brain (Right Visual Field).

Think about what that means. As infant brains are rewiring themselves to absorb our visual language, the seat of categorical processing jumps hemispheres from the right brain to the left. And it stays here throughout adulthood. Their brains are furiously re-categorizing the world, until mysteriously, something finally clicks into place. So the next time you see a toddler struggling with their colors, don’t be like Darwin, and cut them some slack. They’re going through a lot.


*At times, it was probably not much fun to be one of Darwin’s children. He goes on to write:

I will add that it formerly appeared to me that the gustatory sense, at least in the case of my own infants, and very young children, differed from that of grown-up persons. This was shown by their not disliking rhubard mixed with a little sugar and milk, which is to us abominably nauseous; and in their strong taste for the sourest and most austere fruits, such as unripe gooseberries and crab apples.


Regier, T., & Kay, P. (2009). Language, thought, and color: Whorf was half right Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13 (10), 439-446 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.07.001

Gilbert AL, Regier T, Kay P, & Ivry RB (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (2), 489-94 PMID: 16387848

Franklin A, Drivonikou GV, Clifford A, Kay P, Regier T, & Davies IR (2008). Lateralization of categorical perception of color changes with color term acquisition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (47), 18221-5 PMID: 19015521

  • Is it possible, in the case of the african tribe mentioned in the video, that they have different eye-cone configurations that allow them to easily distinguish between shades of green, but hardly between blue? Some kind of racial daltonism?
    I mean, the video supposes that they fail to identify the differences between blue and green because they have different words, but it might as well be the other way: since they fail to differentiate between blue and green, they have a single word for it.

    • I agree. I didn’t write about the Himba because I haven’t read any of the research and so can’t speak to it. I was a tad conflicted at including this video because the footage is very surprising to me. I suspect that it it’s either exaggerated somewhat or there could perhaps be a genetic component here (could be a type of colorblindness, as you suggest). The time delays you see in the video are HUGE – nothing like the 10s of milliseconds seen in the papers that I wrote about.

      If anyone comes across any papers or research on Himba color vision, I’d love to update this part of the story.

      @twitter-30579283:disqus @facebook-1389414643:disqus

      • PeggyK

        Very interesting article.

        Here is a paper that looks at Himba color categorization and it says participants were screened for color blindness:

        • Thanks for the link, that’s quite interesting. It describes a type of test I wrote about in the previous post, where subjects name the colors of different tiles, so researchers can piece together their ‘color map’. I’m still curious to find any papers that describe the effect seen in the video, specifically that the Himba seem to take seconds longer to distinguish a shade of blue from green.

    • MCope

      There are no separate words in many South African languages for blue and green. Many of these speakers can now also speak another language which does have these distinctions. They manage fine. It’s not the rods and cones.

  • I agree with Yuri – how do we know the Himba aren’t all genetically blue/green colour-blind?

  • What I find really bizarre is the difficulty the Himba will have to spot the color, given how it is *physically* different from the other ones.

    I mean, there is not just a language difference between basic blue and basic green, but also a physical one, which is the difference in the magnetic wavelengths of the emitted light, which lead to the color we perceive.

    Another observation I’d like to make is that the difference between “learners” and “namers” are not simply in each of them, but also in the bond namers are able to establish between themselves. Indeed, if we are taught this particular shade of green is named “Yeondu”, there might be more probability for us to consider stitching this new scarf in Yeondu, while reviewing the different choices we have.

    • Axel

      You assume that what we see is the actual physical representation of the signal. I’m only guessing now and can very well be wrong, but couldn’t be that what we actually call senses (sight, smell etc.) really are the brains interpretation of the signals it revives. In that case if the brain has been thought to to categorize two colors as the same thing, it will do so unless the brain is stressed to to otherwise, through concentration and exposure.

      It is like the theory about how the natives when Columbus (or whoever were first) appeared on the horizon they could not see the ships because they were such alien constructs that they could not imagine. So their brain just filtered them out and it was first after they noticed the ripples in the water (which they were familiar with) that they could start identifying the existence of these ships and that it took time for the brain to become familiar with it so they could see it.

      Obviously it is a far fetched theory with not much (that I know of) scientific basis, however it is an interesting concept that what we “see” (are aware of) and what is physically there are different things, related, but different.

      • MCope

        I have encountered the can’t-see-the-ships story but I recall that it was Cook’s ships that the natives couldn’t see. Do you have a reference?

  • This whole article is totally obvious to anyone that’s ever tripped on shrooms or LSD.

  • #

    “There have been studies that show that very young sighted children are as likely to identify a color correctly as blind children of the same age.”
    You mean color blind?

    • No, that wasn’t a typo. See this paper for a reference:

  • martin

    I can’t see how all this research is evidence in favour of the Whofian hypothesis. An equally valid conclusion goes in the opposite direction, that the need to distinguish colors created a new word in a language. How do we know which one triggered which?

    Also, the distinction of the left and right brain half (not left and right brain – we only have one brain!) is exaggerated. For example, language abilities are present in both halfs.

    • simon

      indeed brain is a remarkable thing, although distinctions between left and right in regular healthy brain do exist. Otherwise you could just as well to precision requiring tasks with your left hand as well as with your right one. However brain is dynamic. It can re-wire itself to acomodate changing needs, support new functions, learn remember. (you CAN learn to do those tasks with both your hands equally well) Initially it reserves special portions for different tasks, but if that part is somehow damaged it can teach another part to do that function. Frankly, human brain is amazing.

    • Can you give me an example of a sentence that you found to be exaggerated? Here is what I said: “And for most of us, the left brain is stronger at processing language. ” Based on my reading of the literature, this is accurate and not exaggerated..

      And the research supports the Whorf hypothesis because it shows that the act of acquiring a linguistic construct alters one’s perception of colors, albeit in a very subtle fashion.

      • Jane

        I would like to know if and how these experiments account for handedness. Right-handed subjects typically present different brain structure than left-handed subjects or those who are ambidextrous. If we’re talking about brain wiring in regards to color identification, we should make sure to identify variables that could account for variations in results. Were only right-handed subjects evaluated? Does handedness affect reaction times?

    • Kate

      Agreed! Please consult a neuropsychologist or a cognitive psychologist with topics in this area. There is no right brain and left brain, one brain – two connected hemispheres!

  • MCope

    Lovely pair of posts. Thanks. As a partially color-blind person, this business of color is of particular interest to me.
    Because I am unable to distinguish marginal reds and greens, my brain often fills in, based on best assumptions. This means that I might see something as green until it is pointed out as red, after which I see it as red. I have seen a black-and white photo of a peacock (in bad lighting) in all its glorious colors.

    (Couple of typos in the Darwin quotes)

    • jrockey

      I am also red-green color blind, and I agree with what you say. I noticed that in the “circle of colored tiles” experiment, I had no trouble at all distinguishing the red and green, because my eyes registered the other tiles as gray. When they were later pointed out as green I began to see it.

      • guardian__J

        I would like to chime-in with a “me too” as a blue-green colorblind person.

        This is extremely intriguing to me. When people ask me “what’s it like to be colorblind?” (one of the dumbest questions in the world), if they are really wanting to know, I tell them that I normally don’t notice or remember color. I always said it must be because my brain knew it could be wrong so it didn’t save the information, but these articles really add some interesting details about how the brain works with color/language. I’ve always heard a colorblind person sees camouflage better, I figured it had something to do with the fact that we aren’t even bothering with the color attribute, we are looking for the pattern to not match.

  • It’s logical that the eye and brain become trained to recognise the colour distinctions that they are most often called on to make, those for which names are available, and that other distinctions are harder to access consciously. It’s similar to the way babies become sensitive to the language-specific phoneme boundaries in the sounds they hear – but stop recognising the other possible boundaries, so that adults often struggle to distinguish the phonemes of a second language.

    As a child I drew the world with strong boundaries around the representations of objects I had learned to recognise, and vivid, uniform colours. When I studied a little art at school, I began to look underneath the objects at the colours and shadows and highlights – I learned to make different uses of the raw sensations (to the extent I could access them).

  • Nichochar

    There is this mind experiment, I do not remember where I heard it from, that relates quite a bit to this article :

    Imagine this young person (boy or girl), that’s born and raised in a totally non colorful world (this is possible through the use of special lighting). So he’s born and lives for, let’s say, 18 years (this is unimportant) in this black and white environment. During this time, tutors teach him everything they know about color (these people live outside the box). He therefore has all the “cultural” human information about color. For exemple they’ll say that red is an angry, aggressive color, the color of fire and so on and so forth.

    When he leaves the place, he is confronted with a red rose, which he, at this point, see’s in daylight. Let’s assume for the sake of the experiment that he doesn’t know that roses are typically red.

    Can he recognize the color ?

    • This is the Mary’s Room thought experiment:'s_room

      • Nichochar

        that’s the one. Cheers

    • I would think he would be color blind because since he never saw color for 18 years the nuerons in his brain would not have developed. I think he would not see it in color at all. Just as I think if you covered an infants eyes for 18 years they would be blind.

  • i’m puzzled by the color circles because I very clearly see the distinct color on the left side of the circle in all cases. but the article is pretty clear in saying that the distinct color should be on the right.

    and no i am not color blind.

    • Critic

      I was confused by that too. Also, the article implies that, between the first two color circles, we English speakers should have a much easier time with the first one. This was exactly the opposite of my experience; I didn’t see the odd blue square at all while looking at the cross, but the odd green square was easy to spot.

      Another thing: is the oft-cited 11 English color words figure based on something? It seems extremely low to me, and leaves out words like mauve, chartreuse, maroon, teal, etc. Are those not color words? I guess they are supposed to be less “basic,” but when the question is formulated as “please divide these color swatches into the most basic categories,” some kind of bias seems to be present. It seems to me that anyone would have to engage in a whole lot of approximation to complete such a task.

      • This is described in part I of the post. Essentially it has to do with reliability – the researchers required that at least half of native speakers used a particular word for a color. I hadn’t even heard of chartreuse, and I consider myself a native English speaker. For more empirical data, see the xkcd color survey (linked to from Part I).

        • Aatish: i have done a quick and completely useless survey of four individuals who are native English language speakers and thus far three out of four see the different color on the left side of the color circles.

          So what gives? the article is written in an unambiguous fashion stating that the difference should be seen on the right side of the circle.

          • Hi Ben.

            Sorry for the confusion. I re-read that paragraph and realized that I could have been more clear. What I was trying to say is this:

            Imagine you have a green circle of tiles, like in the pictures, and an odd square that is either blue or dark green. Also, now imagine that this experiment is repeated many times, and the odd square randomly shows up either on the left or on the right in each round. The whole while you are staring at the center.

            The researchers found that if the odd square is on your left, it takes the same time for you to spot it if it were blue or dark green. But if it’s on the right, people are a tiny bit faster (a tenth of a blink of an eye) at identifying the blue square compared to the dark green one.

            This is the subtle effect I was talking about. You will always be able to *see* the odd colored square, the only question is how fast you can do this.

  • Víktor Bautista i Roca

    In the green – blue example it is said A & B are green and C & D are blue.
    To me, only A is green and B, C & D are blue.
    Does anyone else agree?
    (My first language is Catalan, and we tell apart blue from green, just in case)

    • teh

      I agree, but my first language is English, originally from England but spent my infancy in South Africa

  • Very cool article! I’d heard about the linguistic/historic aspects of color description before (see this link I love the research approach here.

  • mike

    i see one small flaw, the use of the computer. it’s screen has a flicker rate,this changes shading for me ; white screens also have black ,red,and blue in them as do black screen also.and what about night vision? sorry about the bad writing:)

  • annie morgan

    Hmm, I seem to see those odd coloured squares on the left side of the circles…maybe my right brain is improving its abilities. Fascinating articles, both of them.

    • Hi Annie, I made some changes to the describe this experiment more clearly. See my comment to Bob below. It’s not about where you see the square (it’s easy to spot), but about how long it takes you to spot it.

      • annie morgan

        oh, I get it, thanks. Well, it didn’t take very long for these 81 year old eyes to see them anyway whichever side did the sighting!

  • excellent articles — i’ve been looking for that video to show a friend who learned his colours from a colourblind teacher — he routinely ‘mis-names’ colours. another interesting aspect is the apparent lack of acuity for seeing the colour blue: has several images where the red, green and blue channels are altered. note how *little difference* we perceive when the blue channel is altered. perhaps this is part of why the blue/green divide happens later in linguistic evolution?

    • Dr. Blue

      Blue is a strange critter from a visual perspective. Our eyes are better at seeing even the faintest amount of blue than any other color of light, but are horrible at distinguishing different brightness levels of blue.

  • I’m curious about the implications of seeing the different tile in all of the color circles almost instantly, with out any difference between the “western” and “eastern” examples.

    • Hi Christine, you will see them almost instantly. You can spot the square in about the time it takes to blink an eye. And the difference between left and right is only about a tenth of a blink of an eye. It’s a very subtle effect.

      • The article and video seems to suggest that different peoples see certain variations more easily than other variation?

  • Todd Kurie

    How about bilingual (from an early age) people who’s two languages have fairly different color/word categorizations? Are they naturally aware of the differences in color perception that language imparts? Is their color perception an average of the two languages? I think understanding this would further clarify the role of language and color perception.

    • I don’t know if it’s been studied (I doubt it). It’s a really interesting idea. I wonder if the effect would be complementary, or if there would be some kind of interference going on.

  • TazInDC

    Fascinating articles. I was quite a late-learner when it came to colors – I didn’t figure out their names until I was 6 years old. My mother even had me tested for color blindness, since I seemed to have no problems anywhere else, but according to the test I saw color just fine. Finally, in 1st grade, my teacher put up a new bulletin board display of large circles of colors with their name printed inside. It was – I assume – targeted to reading, but as I’d long since learned how to read, for me, it taught colors. To this day, I still remember looking first at the red circle, with “Red” printed in the middle and saying to myself, “Ohhhh! So THAT’S what red is!” I can still feel that lightbulb moment.

  • FlyingGazebo

    This would give my mother some peace of mind when me and my sister were learning words for colors. My sister at about age of 3 said, ‘these cars are just the same colors as ours, green.’ Except our car was red. She saw the color right and understood it’s the same one, but she used a totally wrong word for it.
    It took our mom quite a while to shake off the fear my sis is color-blind, especially with me reliably naming 36 colors in my crayon palette at about the same age, and I’m the older one 😛 .

    • a lovely anecdote. Thanks for sharing.

  • Steve Cowie

    I find it really interesting that you pick a test that asks english speakers to distinguish ‘green’ from ‘blue.’ In fact, I smiled. For it confirms my thinking that culturally, most do not and maybe can not distinguish BLUE from CYAN. Those squares for me are Cyan/Teal, not blue. To me they are quite distinct from blue which seems ‘darker’. In fact, the ‘connect with…’Twitter button on this page has been strangely coloured blue rather than the usual cyan.

    I’ve ‘educated’ myself to notice the difference. I worked in a previous profession as an engineer so the colour bars one sees on television have a particular ‘cultural’ meaning (as an engineer). – In no particular order:
    White-Yellow-Cyan-Green-Magenta Red-Blue-Black. Other colours can be synthesized with mixing these to make other colours (RGB or CMY depending on the method)

    I read an article somewhere that Russians identify cyan or cyny from blue or galuboy quite easily.

    Waldman (2002) Suggests that when Newton first labelled his spectrum, he may have distinguished cyan as ‘blue’ and blue as ‘indigo’

    Then there are the Violets…

  • Since I began my language/culture studies I’ve found color study interesting. I’m a linguist who focuses on sign languages. I think this would be an interesting study to do among the deaf in these areas. The sign languages are distinct from the local spoken languages, but the culture exposure would be somewhat similar. The deaf languages are visual in nature and the deaf process visually. But, I’ve read, when a deaf person is processing language, even though it is visual, the language sections of the brain are activated. So, it would be interesting to figure out how to introduce interference.

    As a side note, most sign languages use concrete/icon signs for the basic color terms, whereas most spoken languages use arbitrary words for the basic colors. In many sign languages from diverse roots, black is show by pointing at the eye brows or the hair, white is often pointing at the teeth, and red is pointing at the lips or tongue. I’m not sure about the more “advanced” colors. In the US advanced colors are often indicated by taking the first letter of the English word and shaking it, but, without context, this would be very difficult to identify as a color word. In Sweden you point at your eye for blue (many have blue eyes), in Kenya you point your index finger up and wave it (pointing at the sky) while in the US we hold the letter B and shake it. In Uganda, the sign for green and leaf are the same.

    • Ilka

      Very interesting extension to the article, thanks!

  • I could see all colours in the wheel test instantly! This may be because I am an artist and immediately classified the ‘blue/green – green/green – chorok/yeondu’ as ‘blue/green – green/teal – chartreuse/green’

  • MissMeggo

    I enjoyed the post, but I’d encourage to re-read them and fix the typos and grammatical errors. They were kind of distracting.

    • MissMeggo

      As an example, they were as distracting as the missing “you” from the previous post.

  • Brazilians usually don’t know those colors by name: cyan, magenta, teal, and maroon. Only people who actively works with color, like artists knows those, even though they are quite unique from the other similar colors.

    Maroon is quite funny. The word “marrom” means brown. Maroon is called “bordô” (from the bordeaux wine) and it’s regarded usually as dark red or even brown.

    The teal color is a mess. Some people call it “azul turquesa” (something like turkish blue) while others says “verde-azulado” (blueish green) and there even who says “ciano escuro” (dark cyan).

  • S Wilson

    I once saw a richly brown purse turn purple after it’s owner told me it was purple! I’m not color blind but often perceive green lights as red & vice-versa (dangerous!). My brother, at about 3, could name all his primary colors, but when asked about purple, he first said blue, then red, and was angry to find it was both and neither, but Purple. Perception.

  • Bandragirl

    Wow. This is awesome.

  • Dzeita

    Hi. I work for a school in Colombia. We release an academic magazine twice a year. The first edition for this year is based on how the city is perceived through senses. We would love to publish both your posts or any other text you might have on the subject. If you are interested, please contact me on my email address.

  • Pallavi Gogoi

    Aatish – Congrats on your superb blog. It’s deliciously written.

  • Yaron

    Interesting post.

    I arrived here searching insipiration on how to continue developing my multi-lingual augmented reality color teaching app.
    I was thinking of trying a feedback system to see how different cultures would classify the colors.
    The interesting thing is that in the making of the app – I was practically forced to create fuzzy logic-ed color concepts – otherwise the app’s performance detecting colors suffered greatly.
    Interesting and requires further thinking.

    See it at –

  • Anirudh

    What sorcery is this jumping you speak of? I am unable to make any sense of it.

  • Wendy Lyon

    I found your tennis ball example strange. I’ve always thought of tennis balls as yellow. It never even occurred to me they might be green.

  • Seb

    Interesting, but am always astounded that some cultures, including tribes, have trouble differentiating blue and green because in a natural environment like a savannah or jungle the majority of the colours in your world are either blue (sky) or green (vegetation) and it would seem an advantageous thing for your eyes to learn to distinguish.

  • Karl Teariki

    I’ve just found your blog, great reading, just a thought…

    “The number of Eskimo words for snow probably tells you more about gullibility and sloppy fact-checking than it does about language.”

    I thought It would be more to do with the importance of having in depth knowledge about the different types, shades, textures, densities of snow, a most abundant resource in that environment, that so many things depend upon. The importance of knowing significance of different types could mean the difference between life and death… Looking forward to reading more posts 🙂

  • Warren Dew

    Very interesting article. I wonder if the findings would be different for dual native speakers, who do not as closely link specific words to their meanings.