One aspect of colour that has always fascinated me is the question of how other people experience it, and whether your “blue” or “red” is the same as mine. That interest in how others experience the world around them, and how they behave as a result, is part of what led me to study anthropology when I was in university. Colour is actually a major subject of contention in anthropology, particularly in linguistics, and I thought it would be fun to explore that just a little bit as part of this colour series, though it has little to do with knitting. So here’s the thing. Some cultures have only two colour categories – these are typically classified as black and white, or dark and light. Others have five, or ten, or more. English has (according to the standard count) eleven – black and white; red, yellow, and blue; green, orange, and purple; and brown, pink, and grey. Other languages have even more than that. Does the way we classify the colours of the world around us have any impact on how we actually experience the world? Part of what fascinates me is that, globally, languages tend to follow a very set pattern in the way they add colour terminology – that is, the way they sub-divide the colours they experience into separate categories. (This is based on the late 1960s research by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay.)
There are various explanations for this, and vigorous (ahem) discussions ongoing about which is best.
Some argue that these are natural divisions based on the way the rods and cones in our eyes actually receive light, and that therefore the basic colour groupings are physically built into our brains.
Others suggest that the sequence of colour categories has more to do with what experiences are common and important in a given environment. Dark and light, day and night, are universal; red, the colour of blood, meat, and fire, is pretty important to distinguish. Green and yellow, depending on the environment (jungle versus plains, for instance), tend to be the colours of plants and food. Blue is the colour of sky and water. Brown is the colour of soil, and perhaps of skin. Pink and purple and grey and orange, by contrast, are neither primary colours in (what we think of as) the colour wheel, nor in basic survival experiences, so they are (as the argument goes) less essential categories, and are only added ‘later’ in linguistic development.
(The problem that others see with this argument is that it implies that some languages are more developed than, or superior to, others. That is not a claim most modern anthropologists would feel comfortable with! The only “primitive” languages are pidgins, or trade languages that have no native speakers yet and are still developing. Any fully-formed language, no matter how simplistic it might seem, has evolved through a specific history and environment to suit a specific culture, and is capable of great nuance and subtlety.)
There is a tribe in Namibia called the Himba, and its language has only five colour words. Those five words divide up the colour wheel differently than we do in English. To a Himba speaker, the colour of the sky is black, and the colour of water is white, though an English speaker might well describe both as blue.
[T]he range of stimuli that for Himba speakers comes to be categorized as “serandu” would be categorized in English as red, orange or pink. As another example, Himba children come to use one word, “zoozu,” to embrace a variety of dark colors that English speakers would call dark blue, dark green, dark brown, dark purple, dark red or black. – from the American Psychological Association Monitor article describing Debi Roberson’s research with the Himba
There is a marvellous BBC documentary about this colour perception research with the Himba – but sadly, it’s region-locked, and not available to most of the world. (If you happen to be in the UK, it’s here.) It was posted on YouTube for a time, and I watched it there, but it has since been taken down, so I’ve had to scramble around the internet a bit to pull together references to/images from the film.
Because of the way Himba speakers categorize colours, they are more sensitive to some colour divisions than we are, and less sensitive to others. Given the following array of squares, Himba speakers could easily point out which one is different:
Can you spot it? Neither could I! Here are the RGB values for each square:
Personally, I still can’t see the difference. However, to a Himba speaker, that would be as clear as the following is to you (likely) or to me:
Research like this tends to support the idea that the language we use to describe colour actually has an impact on the way we perceive colour. In terms of physiology, the Himba speakers and the English speakers in the study have the same eyesight – the difference is not in what they see, but in what they perceive.
Now, there are lots of debates about whether correlation is any sort of an indicator of causation. The theory behind this research is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and it comes in a range of flavours. Linguistic determinism is the “hard” or “extreme” version of the theory behind these conclusions; it says that the language you speak determines the way you see the world around you. The “soft” version of the theory, linguistic relativity, says that the language you speak influences the way you see the world around you. (As with most aspects of the social sciences, there are myriad interpretations of these theories, and a vast range of positions – it’s not a case of either/or, as much as a spectrum of possibilities.) In any case: the debate itself is fascinating, as are the experiments that anthropologists and psychologists have devised to test out the theory. I love thinking about how people see the world around them, and how that affects how they interact with that world. And… because this is a knitting blog… I love thinking about what impacts knitters’ colour choices!
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Color, particularly Section 3: Is Color Experience Universal?
- ColourLovers’ ‘The Color of Language: Linguistics of the Rainbow’
- A good explanation and history of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis from the i love english language blog
- A YouTube video about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, showing some cultural experiments about the way people sort and perceive colours
- Michael Stevens discusses colour perception and how we can study the intersection of colour and language: “Is Your Red the Same as My Red?” (YouTube video)
- ‘Encapsulated Universes‘ – not about colour, specifically, but a good, friendly discussion of linguistic relativity