Colour words

It is well known that all languages do not have words for what we would call the basic colours of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple – along with white and black. Why can this be so?

First we can get rid of the idea that because they have no word for a colour, they cannot see it? Of course they can see it, they simply have no category that for that particular colour. Take a language without a word for blue: we would call a darker blue a shade of black and a lighter blue as a shade of white. To wonder why we would answer this way is like wondering why someone calls both straw and apricot shades of yellow. It is not that they cannot see the difference but that they have not formed those particular categories (because they have never spent hours picking the colours of paints, for example). How many colour names we have and the exact lines of demarcation between them depend on the culture/language we live in. When we see a colour in front of us, we see the visual perception and not the category/word/concept of a particular colour. We can compare two shades in front of us and say whether they are the same or different even if we only have one colour word for both of them.

Seeing is one thing but saying is another. All words are categories or concepts and encompass a good deal of variation. In the ‘space-landscape’ of colour, words are like large countries. As children we learn the geography of this space and the borders of each word’s domain. When we are asked to name a colour, we use the word that is the colour’s best category. We sort of understand where in the landscape that colour is and therefore which country it is in. To communicate we need to more of less agree on the borders of the categories and the word of each – otherwise that is no communication. If you say it is a red flower, I will imagine an archetypal flower with an average red colour.

Our culture does more than that. Culture can make connections between objects and colours. Some objects get defined by their colour. What colour is the sky? It is blue. It is a well known fact that the sky is blue. But the sky is not always blue – black on a dark night, various shades of grey (from almost white to quite dark grey with clouds), pink in the dawn, orange and red in the sunset, green with northern lights. Water is also blue by agreement although it is often grey, green, brown, yellow or red. If I think of leaf, green comes along. If I think of lemon, I also bring up yellow. The sky and blue is one of these conventional pairings. But where the colour is important it (in a sense) splits the object concept. It matters whether a wine is red or white, a chess-piece is black or white. The culture will force the noticing of colour when it is important in that culture. Quite often colours are identified by an object (like the apricot and straw mentioned above). This has been going on for a long time: orange from a Persian word for the fruit, yellow from a West German for gold, green from an old Germanic word of new growth, purple from the Greek for a mollusc that gave the royal dye.

Languages acquire colour words over time. Berlin and Kay examined the history of 110 languages and found that words for colour started with light and dark (not just white and black), followed by red (sometimes used as bright coloured), then green and yellow (sometimes together and then separating), then blue. Other colours where added later brown and orange (together sometimes at first), purple, pink, grey. Then we have many, many subcategories (sky blue, pea green) and border ones (aquamarine/turquoise at the green-blue border). I notice that lately when people list basic colours, they include pink along with the primary colours. This is new and implies that red has split to be red and pink. People do not want to call a pink thing red.

Unless it is very important, it seems that colour can be omitted from a memory. It is surprising how little we remember the colour of things. We can see things every day and not be able to remember their colour. There sometimes is simply no reason to remember.

We cannot know what people experience from looking at the words they have. The ancient Greeks lacked many colour words. But the idea that, “It seemed the Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow”, is just wrong. Their poetry is not full of colourful images but that does not mean that their live was devoid of colour.


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