Culture and colour perception

Culture and colour perception

The effects of colour on our mood – from the improved performance of placebos based on their colour to the effect on prisoners of pink prison cells – is well known.  But are we all seeing the same colours, or does your colour perception depend on what language you speak?

In 1858 William Gladstone, who later became better known for serving as Prime Minister four times, published the results of his study into Homer’s Odyssey.  He’d been curious about the descriptions used by Homer – the sky often being “bronze”, but never blue; both the sea and sheep described as the colour of wine; and honey and the faces of men described as green.  Through analysis of the text Gladstone showed that Homer’s colour perception was limited to five different shades – black, white, yellow-green, red, and metallic.  Homer, along with all of ancient Greece, seemingly grouped objects not by their colour as we would understand them, but by their tonal quality.

Research now suggests that it wasn’t simply Homer lacking the word for “blue” as a way to describe the sky, but that he probably didn’t even recognise or have any concept of “blue”.  The idea that lacking the concept of blue in your language would directly affect your colour perception, or linguistic relativism, is controversial.  It might also feel counter-intuitive that people from other cultures don’t see the same colours as yourself, the reality is that they do – and that “blue” is a doorway into this.

Many languages either have no clear line between blue and green, or don’t differentiate between them at all, and see them as one colour.  In Japan, until around 1,000 CE, there was one word, “ao”, that meant what we would understand by both blue and green.  At that point the word “midori” emerged, and at that point described the greener end of the green/blue spectrum.  Midori continued to mean a shade of ao until post-war changes in Japanese education saw them adopting the western distinction between blue and green.  At this point the word midori was adopted to mean green as a separate colour.  A similar lack of differentiation between blue and green is also seen in traditional Chinese, Korean, and Thai languages.

It’s not just the border between green and blue that varies with language.  Russian does not recognise one continuous blue spectrum.  Instead they recognise “siniy”, which we would regard as dark blue, and a separate colour “goluboy”, which covers lighter blues.   So if linguistic relativism is true, does this mean that there really is a difference in colour perception between western and Russian observers?  Is it right that if you don’t have a word for something that you can’t see it?

Looking for answers to these questions involved research into the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose language sees no differentiation between green and blue, and so has no equivalent word for “blue”.  Members of the tribe were shown pictures of twelve squares at a time – eleven green and one blue.  They were consistently unable or slow to pick out the single blue square.  However the Himba have many more words for “green”, and when shown twelve green squares, only one of which differed minimally in shade, they were consistently able to identify it.

The idea that in the past the sky and a metal shield were the same colour for some people, or that traffic lights today turn blue for some users probably still feels a little strange.  What it does however is remind us how our perceptions aren’t shared by everyone, and show how fundamentally our internal dialogue can shape and limit our thoughts.

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