For once, the NY Times has a language-related piece that doesn’t make me turn red and sputter like a retired colonel. The Sunday Magazine has an article, “Color Cognition” by Dirk Olin, that actually presents interesting facts in a meaningful way. It’s the old chestnut of how different languages divide up the spectrum, but for a short magazine piece Olin does a pretty good job of laying out the theories.

The world clearly has many shades of color meaning. Literary Welsh has no words that correspond with green, blue, gray or brown in English, but it uses others that English speakers don’t (including one that covers part of green, part of gray and the whole of our blue). Hungarian has two words for what we call red; Navajo, a single word for blue and green but two words for black. Ancient Greek’s emphases on variables like luminosity (as opposed to just hue) led some scholars to wonder seriously whether the culture at large was colorblind.

In a series of classic studies conducted during the late 1960’s, Eleanor Rosch, now with the University of California at Berkeley, compared color discrimination by Americans with that of the Dani people of Indonesia. English speakers typically use 11 separate ”elemental” color words (including black, white and gray), whereas the Dani use only two. Rosch tested the color memory of the two groups’ members—first showing them a color, then (after a short delay) asking them to find it in a separate group of similar colors. Despite the groups’ big difference in nomenclature, she found that they were perceiving colors in the same way. Rosch’s findings were seized upon by advocates of universality, who said terminology doesn’t affect cognition: color transcends culture.
But recent studies conducted by Debi Roberson, Ian Davies and Jules Davidoff (at the universities of Essex, Surrey and London) suggest otherwise. They examined the hunter-gatherer Berinmo tribe of Papua, New Guinea, a people with five basic color terms who don’t distinguish blue from green. (They do, however, have a distinction for shades of green—called nol and wor—that are not shared by Westerners.) In essence, they found that the Berinmo handled their nol-wor differences better than their blue v. green (while it was vice versa for English speakers). After practice, both groups were able to improve their discernment of the distinction that they previously hadn’t shared with their counterparts. ”These results,” Davidoff and his colleagues contended, ”indicate that categorical perception occurs, but only for speakers of the language that marks the categorical distinction, which is consistent with the linguistic relativity hypothesis.” (The relativity of color naming is just one manifestation of this broader concept, for which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a formula: ”large differences in language lead to large differences in thought.”)

There are other interesting quotes as well. A tip of the hat to the Paper of Record.


  1. Funny — my first thought on reading the article was, “where is LanguageHat to tell me how much validity I should accord this?”

  2. I was a Spanish major and so carefully studied the language. But it wasn’t until I married a Central American that I learned a new color word. Salvadorans refer to most colors of blue as “celeste”, unless it’s a dark blue. Of course, blue eyes, which are rare there,are always “ojos azules.”

  3. Is the case of Hungarian really parallel to the others? As I’d understood, the two words for red (vörös and piros) weren’t differentiated by look, but by which objects they inhered in.
    That said, it’s a fascinating subject. Wittgenstein, if I recall the Remarks on Color correctly, seemed unable to tolerate that people thought green was a shade of something in between blue and yellow.

  4. In a catalogue culture, it seems that (Americans? English speakers?) are developing dozens of common color differentiations. I know the difference between sage, emerald, loden, lime, avocado, and forest, in terms of green. Flamingo is not the same shade as fuchsia. Artists know Cadmium Yellow and Pthalo Blue (as opposed to Aquamarine Blue, but you can’t just say “Pthalo” in the way that you could “Aquamarine” and be understood, because it’s used for several shades of blue and green). Very few people know what to make of the word “puce,” if they even come across it at some point in their lives. (I believe it comes from the French word for flea? thus, it’s that odd glistening purplish/brown shade of an insect’s carapace; I’ve seen a French brand of hairdye that advertised an obvious puce shade as “violet brown,” because they of course do not want to market a color called “flea” in hair products.)
    This may all come down to the fact that the actual spectrum color terms are, in most cases, understood in all the names, and the modern terms are shorthand: “sage” for “sage green,” “avocado” for “avocado green,” blah blah blah. (Continuing on this path of thought takes us to the question of cultural bias in standardized testing: some people have seen flamingos in their natural white state, some have never seen a white swan, etc. Deciding what color something *should* be and then adding the simile to the lexicon as a synonym can be dangerous; it’s sort of an ultimate form of “write what you know,” huh? 🙂

  5. commonbeauty says

    Interesting article.
    My instinct is to think that we all have the same innate faculty for distinguishing between colors, but that this faculty can be trained and, in the case of J.Crew customers, hyperdeveloped. 🙂
    But, seriously, I think the issues raised here are relevant to description in general. There are differences in cultures, differences that would make the multi-culti crowd blush with fear, cultural differences in our ability to describe things extremely precisely. And I don’t want to hear that old saw about Eskimos and their many words for snow, or the ways in which forest dwellers can sense various greens. English has many words for very very many things indeed, and it is a language in which the most slender and sensitive distinctions can be made.
    I rather doubt that a baroque writer in English, like Nabokov, for instance, could be well-translated into more than a handful of languages.
    I just don’t see otherwise sophisticated languages (like Yoruba) having the vocabulary to handle all the visual distinctions a writer like Nabokov would routinely make, what with all his varieties of shine and glimmer and reflection and shimmer.
    Or could we, I wonder, translate Gerard Manley Hopkins into Thai?

  6. Yeah, but- does English cover all the shines and glimmers and reflections en shimmers of Yoruba? I often wonder at the facility of the English-speaking world at assuming that an english translation is the ultimate translation. There is something to be said for George Steiner’s ideas on polyglottism, elitiste and otherwise unthinking as they may be.

  7. No point being more Catholic than the pope (wait, is he Catholic?).
    Yoruba is my first language, and though it is a fabulous language, rich in allusive density, in proverbs and sayings, there is simply no way it can compete with English in terms of vocabulary scope.
    And, on the flip side, I don’t know of any Yoruba saying that cannot be intelligibly expressed in English.
    This is of course not to say that English is “better” than Yoruba: each language is suitable to the tasks it is called upon to perform. English is simply bigger, called upon to perform a great many more tasks than Yoruba is. It has as rich a theological and poetic language as Yoruba does, and a far more extensive critical, scientific, technological and descriptive word-hoard.
    An analogy: the Frick Collection in New York city, home to a handful of masterpieces, is a wonderful museum, one of my favorites. It is not “worse” than the Louvre in Paris, but it certainly cannot compete with that behemoth in terms of breadth. And the Louvre is just as deep (and frequently deeper) than the Frick. I know which of the two I would choose to be castaway in.
    Similarly, pluralistic as I am, I would still have to declare the English language first among equals.
    Beating that dead horse. Anglolotry. Do forgive.

  8. Ah, what can I say. I am always, Gollum-like fighting an unequal battle between my deep love of the English language and my suspicion of it, politically speaking but also artistically. My first language is Dutch and I find the literary variety impoverished compared to the literary English I read. That is sad. ( It also has more to do with Dutch cultural self-hate & nothing with colours.)

  9. The irony of it, Sara: there is no language I would rather learn than Dutch! My day job involves the history of art in that part of the world, and I would like to somehow find my way into the vernaculars of the Lowlands.
    But (foiled at every turn!), every Dutch person I know speaks outrageously idiomatic English, thus making Nederlands one of the hardest languages to learn.

  10. The irony of it, Sara: there is no language I would rather learn than Dutch! My day job involves the history of art in that part of the world, and I would like to somehow find my way into the vernaculars of the Lowlands.
    But (foiled at every turn!), every Dutch person I know speaks outrageously idiomatic English, thus making Nederlands one of the hardest languages to learn.

  11. I speak English. It’s my only language besides Dutch, Afrikaans, German, French, Catalan Spanish, Italian, Polish and Russian.

  12. Does anyone know how to say the name for the color “green” in Yoruba? email your knowledge to
    Thanks for your help!

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