COLOR NAME SITES.

Kári Tulinius sent me a link to this Johnson piece in which the author (G.L.) tries to find sites dedicated to the problem of what to call colors beyond the obvious red, yellow, etc.; unfortunately, many of the links go to Wikipedia, but there are some others of interest. I wrote about the Finnish site Coloria back in 2004, but their c o l o r a t u r e page, which “displays on one page all the names users have proposed for each shade,” is well worth a separate mention, as is the Omniglot color page, and the London College of Communication’s crowdsourcing game looks like fun. But I emitted a combined chuckle and groan (a gruckle?) when I read “Among the oddities [at the Omniglot page] is that ‘green’ is baccarat in Ingush and bäccara in Chechen; what relationship this might have to the card game played on green baize is impossible to guess.” It’s actually quite easy to guess; the answer is “none whatever.” The “c” in these words is pronounced /ts/ (my little Chechen dictionary gives the word as “bätstsara(n)”), and it’s simply another of those linguistic coincidences that are so much more common than people think.

Comments

  1. Explain that to the Ingush at their green baccarat tables.

  2. There’s a problem in that table, which is a belief that every language would have the same primary colours.
    In actuality, it takes 3 values to define a colour. There are a number of different ways to define the three numbers. A common choice is hue, saturation, and brightness.
    In English, colour names are primarily derived from hue. Hence light blue and dark blue are considered to be variations of the same colour.
    In Irish, colour names have much more to do with saturation. “Glas” can mean a pale grey, green or blue. “Uaine” is a saturated green, and “gorm” is a saturated blue. Red like red hair is “rua” but red like blood is “dearg”.
    (Somewhere I have a copy of a scholarly paper on this topic.)
    You can see that in the Irish row in the table where they’re forced to sandwich in more than one term.
    Given that colour names are ways of describing how a three-dimensional colour space could be chopped up into regions, it would seem to me that there are a whole lot of different ways it could be done. However I don’t know enough exotic languages to come up with further examples.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    Traditionally Japanese has a word, 青い, that covers blue and green, but green is now normally 緑色. I think that as a result 青い has been gradually narrowed down to blue, although traditional expressions where it refers to green are still very common. (Also, you will notice that traffic lights in Japan appear to be closer in colour to blue than they are in other countries — possibly a deliberate move to keep up with changing colour perceptions).
    The picture at An Online Colour Naming Model shows a Japanese boy looking at a shade of green and saying “私はこのブルーだと思う (I THINK THIS IS BLUE)”. Apart from the fact that the Japanese sentence is ungrammatical and unidiomatic, in fact it is only 青 that can be used for both green and blue in Japanese. ブルー, from English ‘blue’, definitely refers only to blue. So the picture is actually someone’s cute but misdirected idea of Japanese colour perceptions.

  4. The dog’s color space is of lower dimension than ours.
    The mantis shrimp‘s is of much higher dimension.

  5. That’s quite remarkable about the mantis shrimp (or “thumb splitter”); thanks for linking it.

  6. I was once slashed by what I later decided was a mantis shrimp–the first time I ever heard of the critters–when I poked my hand down its hole in a tidal flat. I was lucky: the wound was a very minor one.

  7. I enjoyed the xkcd link, posted in the comments.
    In view of what you wrote here, Language, (i.e. Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist and one of the moving spirits behind their language blog, Johnson …like me, he’s a fan of Guy Deutscher), I’m surprised no one’s mentioning Guy Deutscher’s book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, that you wrote about here.

  8. Also, what is this “teal”? Does anyone here use the word “teal” to describe a colour? And yet suddenly it’s all over the place to describe blueish green. Ridiculous.

  9. In Chinese 青 qingcovers blue and green but sometimes also black (only in very ancient texts, I think) and, according to one report, sometimes white. I suspect that by now it’s only used in citations, allusions, and other culturally-weighted contexts, since there are other other words meaning simply “blue” and “green”. I also suspect that the meanings “white” and “black” are only used in specific contexts referring back to specific old texts. (But I’m not sure).
    青 really has an extraordinary cultural presence, though, and is at the center of a tremendous web of relationships. Like vert in French it means young, for one thing, but it’s also cognate with a lot of words pronounced qing jing xing sheng etc. meaning life, essence, inner nature, feelings, pure, still, and so on. It’s one of the five symbolic colors (the others are yellow, black, red, and white) and has layers of symbolic meaning coming from that (spring, the east, etc., etc.).

  10. The color names at the various sites linked to above might be cute, but they’re no substitute for the professional color systems.
    See the RAL system or the Pantone system.

  11. He doesn’t look nearly as vivid to you and me as he does to another mantis shrimp.

  12. My speculation that baccarat/bäccara is related to green baize was actually tongue-in-cheek…

  13. Connotations about colors vary by culture. If you look at samples of colors made by home decor paint companies, such as Sherwin-Williams in the U.S.,the variety of names is amazing. From six basic colors, plus black or white the number of combinations is tremendous. Most people choose clothes, unconsciously, in colors that are flattering to their skin tones.

  14. Did anybody already mention the XKCD survey of color names? It’s a masterpiece IMVHO.
    I also remember marvelling at Russian-language discussions of the color “тела испуганной нимфы” (which turns out to be a real thing, although more in a cegory of cool marketing names assigned to the colors of thir wares by textile manufacturers) … it brought up a real wealth of color-naming sites too.

  15. Babs: Most people choose clothes, unconsciously, in colors that are flattering to their skin tones.
    How do you know this?

  16. I seem to remember that anything red in hue can be called 紅 hóng in Chinese, even if it’s so low in brightness that anglophones would unquestioningly call it black.

  17. @maidhc: Some have speculated that carriers for red-green colorblindness (i.e., women who have one copy of the red-green colorblindness gene, such that they are not colorblind but half of their sons will be) may perceive four dimensions of color rather than the three dimensions that most of us perceive or the two dimensions that red-green colorblind people do. This is because red-green colorblind people share only one dimension with the rest of us; their other dimension is slightly different from either of our other two.

  18. My speculation that baccarat/bäccara is related to green baize was actually tongue-in-cheek…
    Ah, my apologies, and I withdraw my gruckle.

  19. … red-green colorblind people share only one dimension with the rest of us; their other dimension is slightly different from either of our other two.
    [feigned innocence] Different in what way, Ran? [/fi]

  20. I am going to take the risk of coming across as obvious or pedantic; also the risk of getting the biological facts wrong; also of course the risk of putting my foot in Noetica’s philosophical trap.
    In the normal human eye there are three varieties of the sensors called cone cells. Each of the three responds to light of various wavelengths, but the strength of the response depends on the wavelength. Because the pattern of dependence on the wavelength is different for the three kinds of cones, the brain receives three different signals, which between them convey more information about the distribution of wavelengths in the incoming light than any one two of them could alone.
    We could think of these three functions (of incoming light) as coordinate functions in something called color space. The “space” is three-dimensional in the sense that it is described by three coordinates.
    (One could also think of describing the same space with three other coordinates, maybe called hue, saturation, and brightness, just as in geometry one could describe a region of a plane by (x,y) coordinates or polar coordinates.)
    In the most common form of colorblindness there are two rather than three kinds of cones, so that the brain receives less information. I would have thought it gets two out of the three usual signals, so that the colorblind person’s two-dimensional color space could be thought of as something that the usual three-dimensional color space projects onto. Some pairs of inputs distinguishable by a normal person would not be distinguishable by the colorblind person. No pairs indistinguishable by a normal person would be distinguishable by the colorblind person.
    But it appears that Ran is saying that only one of these two kinds of cone is identical with any one of the three normal kinds; the other is a bit different. Physically different, I mean. If this is true, then it is perfectly plausible that someone with all four kinds of cone would be getting even more information about the frequency distribution of incoming light than someone with three. In fact, it seems almost certain that they would.

  21. Many thanks for explaining that, Ø. I’d been wondering about Ran’s four dimensions of color.

  22. ‘Some pairs of inputs distinguishable by a normal person would not be distinguishable by the colorblind person. No pairs indistinguishable by a normal person would be distinguishable by the colorblind person.
    But it appears that Ran is saying that only one of these two kinds of cone is identical with any one of the three normal kinds; the other is a bit different.’
    This might be supported by the fact that a common science-museum test for colorblindness is the display of an apparently undifferentiated grayscale stipple, which very clearly presents a figure to a colorblind person? Maybe?

  23. empty: But it appears that Ran is saying that only one of these two kinds of cone is identical with any one of the three normal kinds; the other is a bit different. Physically different, I mean. If this is true, then it is perfectly plausible that someone with all four kinds of cone would be getting even more information about the frequency distribution of incoming light than someone with three. In fact, it seems almost certain that they would.
    The way you whizz from “perfectly plausible” to “almost certain” here, I wonder you haven’t got a speeding ticket. There are common misconceptions about the notion of “information”. You used the expression “the brain receives less information” as if it were a cellphone receiving an SMS. But the mathematical, signal-processing notion is not directly applicable in the cognitive sciences, and not even in neuroscience, although many neuroscientists seem not to have thought about the difference (I’m judging from the popular-science things I read).
    In the context of animals and their brains, whatever “information” in a “signal” might be in addition, it is at least something that the recipient of the signal must “understand” for that something to function (“actually be”) “information” – or not, as the case may be. “Information” in this context is not something that can be introduced into the recipient as if it were a force-fed madeleine. “Information” is not information if it is not understood.
    So you might be able to demonstrate mathematically that there is more Shannon information sent from a deficient, two-cone system in which one of the cone types is not identical in function to one of the three types of cone in a normal system. But this is formulated from the point of view of a mathematician, not of the sending system (“eye”) and not the receiving system (“brain”). Unless “the brain” can process that Shannon information in exactly the form the mathematician imagines it to be produced, the net effect may be that “less information” arrives.

  24. demonstrate mathematically that there is more Shannon information sent from a deficient, two-cone system in which one of the cone types is not identical in function to one of the three types of cone in a normal system
    Well, I meant not a deficient two-cone system but rather some unusual four-cone system that, according to Ran (if I understand him right), may be present in “carriers”.
    And I am not using “more information” in some technical sense. Substitute “more data” if you like, or “a fourth and different signal, whose content could not be deduced by any means from the combined content of the other three signals”.
    But I completely agree that this will all be moot (as far as what is or is not distinguishable by “the person”) if something good doesn’t happen at the other end of the optic nerve. And I do not pretend to know anything in detail about what does happen there even in the case of the usual three-cone setup.
    For what it’s worth, I have always thought thow there is this homunculus sitting in front of a monitor at the brain end of the nerve, swilling down madeleines with cup after cup of bad coffee. (In the case of an insect brain, he will have hundreds of monitors, one for each lens, and you don’t want to know what he’s eating.)

  25. You should offer that homunculus-in-a-bug script to Hollywood – it would make a great movie. When epistemological theories are shown to be nonsense, they can often be recycled as entertainment. Woody Allen rendered this service for Freud, and gnosis gave us Star Wars.

  26. I just love the understandable but erroneous idea that if you have eyes like this then you will see images like this.

  27. When an idea is understandable and entertaining, that is a reliable sign that it will be shown to be erroneous or misleading, because all-too-human. To be scientific, statements should excite neither the emotions nor the intellect – ideally, they should be incomprehensible as well. The Old Testament God was good at those, as were Heidegger, Derrida and most economists.

  28. Stu, you can be such a killjoy. Or rather you can try to be.
    On my 17th birthday my father, in a well-meaning and endearing gesture, gave me several paperback books about mathematics. One of them was a book of essays. The title of one of the essays has stayed with me for 40 years: Emotional Exaltation Arising from the Contemplation of Mathematical Truth.

  29. HTML is apparently more complicated than I think, too.

  30. There is nothing in my words to mope about, empty. They contain the same mildly theatrical sarcasm – dare I day irony – as they always do.

  31. John, that article says:

    Any recessive genetic characteristic that persists at a level as high as 5% is generally regarded as possibly having some advantage over the long term … Humans have a higher percentage of color blindness than macaque monkeys according to recent research.

    Humans also persistently make more mistakes with HTML than macaque monkeys do. It is consoling to think that this might be another long-term advantage we have over them.

  32. When they finish typing the html version of the works of Shakespeare we’ll see more mistakes.

  33. nothing in my words to mope about
    I know, Stu. Your comment was more obscure to me than many of your others have been, but I did not miss the irony; and my own theatrical response was obscure to me, too. I later attempted to write a second comment in an effort to make my first less obscure, but I gave up.

  34. @Ran: I don’t know much about colour-blindness, but the standard model is that you need three axes to specify colour. Hue, saturation and brightness is one example. Red, green, blue is typical in websites. Many printers use yellow, magenta and cyan.
    These are all equivalent. There is a straightforward mathematical procedure to transform one to the other.
    I don’t think anyone has proposed an additional axis. If you have different sensors in your eyes, they might have a different curve, but they’re not going to give you a new axis.
    Some creatures can perceive colours outside the range of human vision, but this can be modelled by extending the range of one or more axes. We can simulate this extended range by squashing it (as registered by more sensitive instruments) down into the range that we can see.
    You can see the result in many nature shows. For example, bees can see more in the ultraviolet range, and some flowers present patterns that encourage bees to visit that are only perceptible in the UV range. By remapping the colour range, the nature shows can demonstrate what things look like to the bees.

  35. So the birds and the bees may actually have something in common – mais pas devant les hommes.

  36. I don’t think anyone has proposed an additional axis.
    4D: birds, monkeys, fish.

  37. If you have different sensors in your eyes [...] they’re not going to give you a new axis
    Wrong.
    To someone with one sensor there will no perceived difference between, say, “pure red” and “pure blue” light, i.e. light of one wavelength and light of one (but different) wavelength, as long as both of these wavelengths stimulate that sensor. A combination of those two wavelengths (or any combination of any visible wavelengths) would also appear the same. Of course, whatever wavelength or combination of these is involved, there is also the question of how strong the light is, or rather how strongly it stimulates the sensor. But any visible wavelength or combination could be made to look like any other by “turning the volume up or down”. The only “axis” is amplitude.
    To someone with two sensors, the pure red and the pure blue might appear different, because one sensor responds more to the one and the other more to the other. A pure wavelength between those two might have the same effect as a certain combination of the two. Assuming that each sensor responds to a range of wavelengths, and more strongly to the middle of the range, and that the two ranges overlap, any visible wavelength or combination of wavelengths should have the same effect as some pure wavelength somewhere in the combined range. There can be said to be two axes: amplitude and “where you are in the range”.
    For those of us with three sensors (with their three overlapping ranges), it is no longer true that every combination of visible wavelengths appears the same as some pure wavelength. For example, ordinary sunlight does not look the same as any “pure” kind. But because we have only three, one can (and does, in making a color TV) select three wavelengths and manage to simulate any visible wavelength or combo by combinations of those three only.
    If we had four sensors, though, that would no longer be true.

  38. If we had four sensors, though, that would no longer be true.
    What exactly would no longer be true ? Would not your sentences still be true by (roughly speaking) replacing the word “three” by the word “four” ? Actually, I’m not sure what “having four sensors” is supposed to mean – is the fourth a replica of one of the other three ?
    Or is this some kind of mathematical works-in-3D-but-not-in-4D doohickey ?

  39. It would no longer be true that one could select three wavelengths and manage to simulate any visible wavelength or combo by combinations of those three only.
    I certain did not mean for one of the four sensors to be a replica of one of the other three!
    I was using “N sensors” as shorthand for “sensors of N different kinds”, or more accurately “sensors of N different kinds, no one of which can be simulated by a combination of the remaining N-1″.
    Mathematically, I am thinking of the possible inputs (combinations of different kinds of light) as a region in an infinite-dimensional vector space. I am thinking of a (type of) sensor as a linear mapping from this to a 1-dimensional vector space; knowing what particular mapping it is means knowing the pattern of response of that sensor to various wavelengths. I am thinking of our three sensors as giving three linearly independent mappings, and thus together providing a mapping of the infinite-dimensional space of all possible light inputs onto a 3-dimension space of eye outputs (brain inputs). I am imagining that what Ran and McM are referring to is a case where there is a fourth kind of sensor which is linearly independent of the other three, so that when all four are in play there is a mapping onto a 4-dimensional space.
    If the fourth were not linearly independent of the other three, then the map to the 4d space would land in a 3d subspace thereof, so that nothing would be gained from the presence of the fourth sensor.
    Likewise, when the Lord gave you and me three kinds of sensors, if He had done it in such a way that the output of one of the three could be predicted (calculated, determined) from the outputs of the other two, then that would not have been a very intelligent design. The mapping to the 3d space would have landed in a 2d subspace, and nothing would have been gained by having a third sensor.
    The choice of three kinds of light which in combination can simulate any kind of light corresponds mathematically to a choice of three vectors in that infinite-dimensional space such that their images in the 3d space remain linearly independent.
    The idea that actual light (I don’t mean what we see, but rather what is there) is a linear combination of light of pure wavelengths is good physics. The kind of mathematics that is used to work with such things is called Fourier analysis.

  40. Switching from the physics of light to the physiology of vision: Undoubtedly the idea that the function given by a type of sensor (cone cell) can be taken to be linear is merely a convenient approximation to the truth. But I bet it’s a pretty good approximation; and, even it isn’t, the main points remain:
    (1) more kinds of sensor can abstractly be thought of as more dimensions, and
    (2) in practical terms a brain that both has more kinds of sensors and “knows” what to do with them can “see more colors”. I don’t mean that it can see more wavelengths; that’s a separate issue. I mean that it can detect wavelength-related differences that it could not otherwise detect.

  41. Linearity is in fact an extremely bad assumption, and this fact has been exploited by some versions of color reproduction. Edwin Land got an amazing number of perceived colors out of just green-filtered images projected with white light and red-filtered images projected with red light, including every hue, though not every combination of brightness and saturation. Further experimentation showed that the same effects could be achieved with two narrow-pass filters using slightly different yellows. These psychophysical effects are still not understood.

  42. Cool!

  43. homunculus-in-a-bug
    I was picturing the bug’s homunculus as a teeny bug, which now that I think about it means that “homunculus” is not really the best word.

  44. Bugunculus.

  45. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Parrots and some other birds have four kinds of cone, and can see parts of the spectrum — into what we call the UV, but they wouldn’t — that we can’t see at all. Whether they perceive colours confined to our visible range differently from us I don’t know. It oughtn’t to be too difficult to test if women who are not colour-blind but are carriers for red-green colour blindness have tetrachromatic vision and can distinguish between colours that look identical to people with normal colour vision. I imagine this has been done, but that it hasn’t yielded interesting results (if it had we’d probably have heard about it).

  46. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: Yes, at least sometimes, but apparently not consistently definable.

  47. octopod says:

    Mantis shrimp (stomatopods) are also known to be true tetrachromats.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Somebody has posted a table of Korean colour words and what (the poster thinks) each word means: 한국의 전통색 (“Korea’s traditional colours”)

  49. Anonymous says:

    Sorry. This is the correct link: 한국의 전통색

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