Hues and views

Color terms are of great interest to linguists and anthropologists because they exist in a strange nexus of physical reality, biological sensation, and cultural perception. What I mean by this is that color is, strictly speaking, a shorthand for different wavelengths of light. Our eyes can perceive a set range of these wavelengths (the exact range varies a little from eye to eye) and convert them into information our brains can understand. The eye is not a perfect tool for wavelength measurement though, nor the brain for processing. Instead we perceive color first through a filter of the limitations and predilections of specialized cells in the eye (cones) and then through the even more enigmatic syntactic pathways of our brains. Thus something that seems like it should be relatively simple, perhaps even universal, is capable of being coded many different ways in the conscious thoughts of humans, and the study of how and why we code colors the way we do has much to teach scientists about how and why we code just about everything else.

One theory about color and language has to deal with how color terms "develop" cross-linguistically. I put develop in quotes because it implies that languages at the start of the scale are more primitive, which is untrue. The universalist theory of color states that the most basic color terminology in any language is one of black and white aka. dark and light. If the language has only one additional color, the third color will be red, a color used widely as a signal in the animal kingdom. Following that if a language has a fourth term it will be either green or yellow; if it has a fifth it will have both green and yellow. After that blue will enter the lexicon, followed in no particular order by brown, purple, orange, and gray. This theory is meant to show that certain colors are more coded to human biology and thus more salient and common in human languages. Though widely quoted, it is not without dissenting opinions and there a number of modern variants.

Another fascinating color experiment, often cited in rather sensationalist internet articles that overstate its results, is the Himba color experiment, named for the Himba (a people of Namibia) volunteers who originally undertook it. The test would show the subject several blocks of color arranged in a circle. One block would be of a different color. By measuring the eye movements of the subjects scientists measured the speed at which they found the odd man out. The interesting thing was this: speakers of languages that did not have separate words for green and blue (something so common English linguists coined the term "grue" to refer to it) were slower at differentiating when the difference between color blocks spanned the blue/green divide than speakers who did distinguish them. To flip the tables for English types, if someone showed you a ring of color blocks that were mostly dark blue, but one light blue, you would be slower by some tiny fraction than a Russian speaker whose language has distinct color terms; siniy and goluboy. Yet more fascinating was this: if you covered the subjects right eye, which is linked to the left side of the brain where most language processing happens, the differences in speakers levels out considerably. The implication is that your brain does access linguistic knowledge to help make these determinations (note: just to help, obviously it can still do it just fine without).

An important misunderstanding that I want to make incredibly clear about language and color is that all humans with functioning color receptors see and perceive basically the same thing. Lacking or having color terms does not increase your ability to see or understand colors. The difference is more akin to a botanist and a leyman looking at some flowers. The leyman sees flowers. The botanist sees connate and adnate blossoms, stamens and peduncles. It is not that the leyman cannot see the features that define these things or that she could not understand once explained; she simply does not divide up flowers that way in her head and so may not pay attention to the distinction as much.

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