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Languages And Color — The Connection Between The Words We Use And The Way We See The World

What is the connection between the colors we see and the words we use to describe them? Can our language affect our perception?

When you start learning a language, colors are some of the first adjectives you pick up. Red becomes rouge in French, green turns to verde in Spanish and blue becomes blau in German. But what would happen if the language you are learning didn’t have a word for blue? Does the color still exist for native speakers of that language?

Is "blue" a sensorial perception, a concept or a word?

According to historians, the Egyptians were the first civilization to synthesize the color blue. The pigment was a mixture of silica, lime, copper and alkali. It is considered to be the first synthesized pigment ever — a testament to the Egyptians’ technological sophistication. The abundance of blue in Egyptian art is evidence of the human ability to perceive and name this color. But what about before the Egyptians? What if the concept of blue is somewhat recent in the history of humankind?

William Gladstone, classicist and former Prime Minister of Britain, proposed in his book Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age that Homer and his contemporaries did not see colors like we do. Homer describes blood, a rainbow and a dark cloud as purple or deep red and describes the sea as looking like wine. Not a single mention of the word “blue" can be found in his work.

This discovery led to further research by the German linguist Lazarus Geiger, who scoured the Koran and other ancient texts for descriptions of color. He found almost no mention of blue. Further research led linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf to the conclusion that the language we speak shapes our perception of the world we live in, particularly our awareness of different colors.*

This might sound bizarre, but if we think for a moment about how naming things can have an impact on our perception of them, it’s not so outlandish. Imagine the man who ends up in the hospital complaining of cardiac problems. He insists he is about to have a heart attack. But after several tests, nothing indicates heart-related problems. The doctor proposes the theory that he suffers from anxiety. Suddenly, the patient sees himself from a completely different perspective. It’s not his weak heart that is suffering, it’s his anxious mind making his heart pound.

Take that one step further and think of colors. In English we have different words for green and blue, but in some languages this distinction is absent. And in other languages there are two or more words for different shades of green. By "words" I don’t mean expressions such as “light green" or “dark green," but two completely different words for these two tones of green.

Research conducted several years ago with the Himba tribe of Namibia seems to corroborate this notion. The Himba don’t have a word for blue, and tests have shown they cannot distinguish green and blue easily. The test was conducted using a circle containing eleven green squares and one blue square. Most subjects were unable to spot the difference, while some could identify the blue square but took longer than average to do so. But a similar circle composed of green squares was shown to the tribe, with one of the squares a different hue of green. They spotted it instantly because the different hue is named a different color in that tribe. The experiment seems to support the idea that naming a difference makes it easily perceptible to the spectator.

Take Russian as an example. In English we name different shades of dark blue and light blue, but in Russian they have different words for these two colors: goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blues. Sound strange? We do the same thing for another color: dark red and light red — the latter of which we call pink! And we all know the color pink has been associated with a specific gender during these last few decades, something most feminists would consider problematic and worthy of serious debate.

Is language more powerful than our physical cognitive system?

So does language change our perception of the world with such impact? Or does it merely represent what we all perceive in the exact same way through our cognitive system?

Research shows language does have an impact on our worldview. This is an interesting but potentially dangerous theoretical stance. Genetic essentialism in the early twentieth century led to the murder and genocide of those considered genetically inferior. Can the acknowledgement of linguistic differences with the power to change cultures and personal perception lead to some political stance that will legitimize the definition of hierarchies between cultures? If a culture has a more developed vocabulary for not just colors but ethical concepts such as “fairness" or “equality," will it be considered superior to others? And if so, will it legitimize the valuing of certain cultures while others are devalued?

Or will the opposite happen? When you’re learning a language you do have an open window to a different culture. Languages are not merely a succession of translatable words: they literally affect the color of our world. Perhaps it’s not so much about closed universes, but communicating ones.

* Linguistic relativity, also known as Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism, is a concept-paradigm in linguistics and cognitive science that holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition or worldview. It used to have a strong version that claims that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. The more accepted weak version claims that linguistic categories and usage only influence thoughts and decisions.

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