Category Archives: Language

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.

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

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.”

—Herman Melville, Billy Budd

Spectral Rhythm. Screen Print by Scott Campbell.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.

Reconstructing the rainbow. Stephanie, who blogs at 52 Kitchen Adventures, took a heat gun to a crayola set.

In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.

And it’s not just Japanese. There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In Vietnamese the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue.  The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qīng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. In fact, Radiolab had a fascinating recent episode on color where they talked about how there was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!

(Update: Some clarifications here. Thanks, Ani Nguyen, for catching the mistake about Vietnamese. See her comment below about how the same phenomenon holds in Vietnamese. Also, the Chinese word qīng predates modern usage, and it mingles blues with greens. Modern Chinese does indeed distinguish blue from green. Thanks to Jenna Cody for pointing this out, and see her insightful and detailed comment below.)

I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.

Imagine that you had a rainbow-colored piece of paper that smoothly blends from one color to the other. This will be our map of color space. Now just as you would on a real map, we draw boundaries on it. This bit here is pink, that part is orange, and that’s yellow. Here is what such a map might look like to a native English speaker.

A map of color for an English speaker. Results of the XKCD Color Survey. Randall Munroe.

But if you think about it, there’s a real puzzle here. Why should different cultures draw the same boundaries? If we speak different languages with largely independent histories, shouldn’t our ancestors have carved up the visual atlas rather differently?

This question was first addressed by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in the late 1960s. They wanted to know if there are universal, guiding laws that govern how cultures arrive at their color atlas.

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