ColourRIOT: Does Language Shape the Colours We See?

colour RIOT


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 is a general pattern to the way cultures divide up colours with language. Source, but with added colour scribbles!

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:

Look carefully! Which is different? – Via a BoingBoing post on the research.

Can you spot it? Neither could I! Here are the RGB values for each square:


Via BoingBoing again. Not exactly a scholarly source, but the only place I could find the images!

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:

The blue-green square stands out to me, but to the Himba speaker in the picture, it’s as difficult to pick out as the square in the green array above! (Screen cap of the BBC documentary via BoingBoing.)

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.


From the Brainpickings blog, quoting the BBC documentary.

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!

Further reading:


Filed under ColourRIOT

9 responses to “ColourRIOT: Does Language Shape the Colours We See?

  1. Vanessa

    Amazing! Thanks for the post. I’m in the US and can’t see the documentary, but what’s the reason why the Himba people can see that difference?

    • Annie Bee

      It’s basically because their language chops up the colour wheel into different sections than English does. The dividing line between green and brown falls right on the line between those two shades of what we see as green, so they are sensitive to that difference. We are more sensitive to the difference in the other array, because our dividing line between blue and green falls between the two different shades shown.

      The same sort of thing happens in speech. Different languages distinguish between sounds differently — for example, in English, we differentiate between “R” and “L”, and the difference between those sounds can make two otherwise identical words mean two different things, as in “RACK” and “LACK”. (A pair of words like this is called a “minimal pair” in linguistics.) In Japanese, though, those two sounds aren’t differentiated: there’s no minimal pair of words that have different meanings because of these sounds. That’s why Japanese speakers have trouble distinguishing between those two sounds, which gives rise to what is popularly known as “Engrish”. To us, the mistakes can be hilarious, because the difference between the two sounds is so obvious to us (check out John Pinette’s “Flee Wirry” routine as an example of this humour: But to a Japanese speaker, our mistakes with their language, as understandable as they might be to us, can be equally hilarious.

      Another example would be a language like Mandarin, which uses tones (a flat tone, a rising tone, or a descending tone) to impart meaning to words. Two words pronounced the same way except for a difference in tone can have totally different meaning. To a Mandarin speaker, this is totally natural and the difference is obvious, but to an English speaker, who has not grown up with the same sensitivity to tone, it can be baffling (and sometimes embarrassing). It’s not that we can’t hear the tones, but since we don’t normally ascribe as much meaning to them, it’s much more difficult for us to pick out the differences. (In English, we might use a rising tone to indicate a question, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the meaning of the word.)

  2. I love this thread of thought also. It always reminds me of a book I read in my youth – A Voyage to Arcturus – where there are two new colours not visible on earth. And, since my books are all in storage, I’ll have to paste from Wikipedia (which thankfully quotes this):

    ~Another widely-striking feature of the book has been the two new primary colors of the sun Alppain, “ulfire” and “jale”:

    “Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful [and] jale [to be] dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.”

    • Annie Bee

      The whole idea that there could be new colours is a brain twister, for sure! Imagine describing ANY colour to someone who had never seen it before. Those are beautiful colour descriptions, but I can’t envision any colour that isn’t already on the colour wheel, to go with them.

    • Annie Bee

      … And WHOA. Erin (Robotaday/Anatomyofaskirt) just tweeted this link to me: Apparently some women can see even more colours than the rest of us — there are women who have a fourth set of cones (colour vision receptors) and can therefore potentially see a whole other dimension of colour. My mind = blown.

  3. This is fascinating, thanks. I saw that documentary on the BBC, that colour thing is mind bending 🙂 Weirdly, I could tell which square it was going to be, although at first they all look the same. I totally can’t articulate why though! It makes no sense, maybe it is my right brain that can see the difference and my left brain is in the dark 😀

    • Annie Bee

      I’m with you there — I had a vague inkling that the square was different, but when I actually looked straight at them I couldn’t make out any change in the colour. Amazing how our brains work, eh?

  4. geebeew

    So cool to hear this explained again! I remember you talking about it back in uni!