What’s in a colour? Since more than 80% of information comes in through vision, the way we colour the world around us is quite important. Have you ever thought that the sky can be other than blue and the grass other than green in other languages? These colour categories seem universal, but in fact they are not.

Guy Deutscher finely described the problem in his book ‘Through the Language Glass. Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’, but I will try to make a very brief overview of the linguistic ‘colour-issue’ and to mention some interesting points for further analysis.

In fact, it was William Gladstone who first noticed colour differences (at least, brought them to public attention) and set the stage for colour debate. In 1849 he published his work on Homer where he questioned why the ancient poet described the sea as wine-dark, honey as green, and sheep and iron as violet. Why were his skies never blue but iron or copper? These oddities cannot be blamed on Homer being blind or colour-blind, since other ancient Greek writers (along with the authors of the Indian Vedas, the Bible and early Chinese texts) shared this worldview. Gladstone conjectured that there was a universal anatomical deficiency in the ancient world which gradually evolved. But evolutionary studies proved that humans must have had the same degree of colour vision for millennia, which means that our vision is hardly different from Homer’s.

But if colour distinctions are not determined by anatomy, are they formed by language? Does language really determine or, at least, influence the way we colour the world around us? (as supposed by the Sapir-Whorf theory)

CC Colourfeeling
CC Colourfeeling

We tend to think of colour names in terms of our basic 11-colour paradigm. But it’s not typical of all the languages. For example, Russian has 2 words for blue (‘goluboy’ and ‘siniy’) distinguishing between light-blue and dark-blue. At the same time, pink is not considered as ‘basic’ colour in Russian, but rather as a very light hue of red. Polish also has two words for blue — ‘niebieski’ and ‘granatowy’ — but their semantics is different from Russian’s ‘goluboy’ and ‘siniy’. Japanese initially didn’t distinguish between blue and green having only one word for these hues — ‘aoi’ (which can be determined as blue with a far broader range of shades than in English). Nowadays, under the influence of the European tradition the semantics of the word has shifted towards our ‘classical’ blue. And green is now described with another word — ‘midori’. Nevertheless, the grass is still ‘aoi’ in Japanese, as well as a green traffic light. Some New Guinea Highland languages have terms only for ‘dark’ and ‘light’. Hanuno’o language, spoken in the Philippines, has only four basic colour words: black, white, red and green. Pirahã language, spoken by an Amazonian tribe, is said to have no fixed words for colours at all. According to Dan Everett, if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say “This looks like blood”.

The issue of whether the colour spectrum is randomly carved up into categories, or whether there are universal constraints on where these categories form has long been the centre of linguistic, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical debate. Some interesting discoveries were made, the most famous of which is the one by Berlin and Kay (1969). They considered colour cognition as an innate, physiological process and discovered that colour words emerge in all languages in a predictable order. They identified eleven possible basic colour categories (white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and grey) and found that the colours followed a specific evolutionary pattern. Black and white come first, then red, then yellow, then green and finally blue. Researchers tried to find explanations for this phenomenon in nature. Red is probably first because it is the colour of blood and of the easiest dyes to make in the wild. Green and yellow are the colours of plants. And blue is the last one because – with the exception of the sky – few things are blue in nature.

Though the theory was much critisized later on, it revolutionized and revived colour studies, which had stayed silent for almost 100 years. In the last few decades a whole number of experiments were carried out to find out whether speakers of ‘colour-deficient’ languages can see all the colours and distinguish between them.

The fact is, that we all see more or less the same. If asked to choose a lighter or a darker colour, most of us would do it properly. But a number of tests have shown that people can remember and sort coloured objects more easily if their language has a name for that colour. For instance, bilingual children of Senegal (French-Wolof) would distinguish between red and orange colours faster than monolingual Wolof children. Wolof language has only one word for these two hues, whereas French — two. And in some tests Russian speakers were faster at distinguishing certain shades of blue than English speakers (since Russian has 2 different terms for light and dark shades of blue, as has been already mentioned).

It goes without saying, that linguists are interested in describing the semantics of colour terms not just in one language, but in a range of different languages. Yet comparisons through translations (like ‘niebieski’ = blue; ‘siniy’ = blue; ‘aoi’ = blue) are absolutely unacceptable. The semantics, collocations and connotations of every word are unique.

It seems that it would make sense to look at colour categories from a cognitive perspective. The way people of different cultures set boundaries in spectrum and distinguish between certain hues depends on how they conceptualize colours, rather than on how they perceive them. Anna Wierzbicka argues that colour concepts are bound to certain universalities of human experience, such as day and night, sun, fire, vegetation, sky and earth. The number of colour terms may depend on how important it is for a certain culture to distinguish between them. For example, yellow and red hues are more relevant for Southern cultures (because of sun, sand, etc.) than blue, green or black, which can seem equal in their significance. Why invent three different words for a phenomenon conceptualized as one? Language strives for economy, hence the differences in the number of colour categories.

A curious afterthought to all this “colour-debate” is that colours are used in very different ways in different idioms across languages. For example, in English one argues until he is blue in the face, whereas in Russian he would definetely turn red. In English hair is grey, whereas in Russian it’s rather white.
And what would you say of this short advertisement?

Green bags available in seven colours.
(Placed at Cambridge University Press bookshop)

In this context it seems to acquire far more hidden meanings. 😉