Why different words for light and dark blue can change how you see them

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The connection between words and their references is an interesting one. Most words and their meanings have no inherent connection between them. Yet, once something is named, the word and its reference become inseparable. The reason for why having different words for different shades of a color can influence the way we perceive them has to do with the nature of language itself.

Languages can influence cognition and cognition may in turn influence perception. This was the basic idea behind a theory called ‘linguistic relativism’.

Linguistic Relativism

Linguistic relativism was an extremely popular concept among linguistics scholars in the late 1800s and 1900s. It was a theory about the influence of language on human cognition. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that the sentence structures and vocabulary of a language affected the way a language speaker perceived the world. They provided evidence from several languages.

One of their strongest arguments involved the lack of any time markers in a language called ‘Hopi’. They argued that because this language did not have a system to indicate the time of an event, Hopi speakers did not perceive time the way other people did. They went on to argue that for Hopis, all events happened in a continuum. This extreme version of what is known as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ was later disproved. However, several linguists stand by a weaker version of it. The structure of the language we speak, can make certain concepts and categorizations easier for us to grasp than the ones that our language lacks.

Linguistic relativism in colors

In 1858, a British Prime Minister and scholar, William Gladstone made an interesting observation about the odd choice of color terms in the Greek writer Homer’s works. The sea is described as ‘wine-red’ in several parts of Iliad and Odyssey and oxen as red. Gladstone observed that the color blue is completely absent in Homer’s works. This inspired Gladstone to come to the conclusion that ancient Greeks were color blind. He went a bit further and argued that a lack of color terms in a language makes it impossible for the speakers to perceive those colors.

Later research has shown that language has no such hold on human perception. An experiment involving babies before the age of language acquisition revealed that they distinguish among the primary colors. Cognition on the other hand, could be influenced by the presence or absence of adequate color vocabulary.

There is a general pattern in the color terms present in languages across the world. The overwhelmingly common preference for primary color terms is in the order: black-white, red, yellow, blue and green. All languages distinguish between light and dark. In languages that code for two color terms, it is always black and white. Languages with three color terms tend to have black, white and red. The fourth color is usually yellow, and as a fifth color, either blue or green are preferred. Interestingly, Japanese does not have separate color terms for blue and green. As a result, some traffic lights in Japan are known to have blue lights in place of green.

The curious case of blue

Not many languages have distinct names for different shades of a color. Even fewer languages have names for the different shades of blue. It is observed that most languages are more sensitive towards the different shades of warm colors than those of cool colors. English, for instance, recognizes red, crimson and orange all of which are essentially shades of red. It does not however, have different names for the shades of blue. This is often attributed to the fact that there are more blue backgrounds than blue objects. Objects of other colors are more common than blue objects and we typically talk more about things in the foreground rather than background. The things we talk about more often, tend to be better described.

Blue in Russian, Japanese and Greek

Russian, Japanese and Greek are among the few languages that have distinct color terms for light blue and dark blue. They tend to distinguish between light blue objects and dark blue objects more easily.

Russian terms ‘goluboy’ and ‘siniy’ refer to light blue and dark blue respectively. A Cambridge study using three different blue colored dots on a white surface revealed that Russian speakers identified the light blue colored dot faster than the others. They also have an easier way of distinguishing between the different blue objects, which involve different shades of blue.

The Japanese word ‘mizu’ refers to the color sky-blue. Sky blue is not a distinct color in most other languages. In a study that examined color identifying patterns in Japanese speakers, it was found that there was an overwhelming tendency to recognize sky-blue, even more than dark blue.

An interesting observation regarding color perception was made among Greek speakers who live in the UK. Greek distinguishes between two shades of blue – ‘ghalazio’ and ‘ble’. Interestingly, Greeks who had spent a lot of time in the UK, who had assimilated into the culture and language eventually dropped the distinction. They apparently started using just a single term to refer to the all shades of the color blue. It is also said that they did not perceive the differences between the shades of blue anymore, but this is contested.

The important thing to understand is that not having a color term does not mean that speakers are incapable of perceiving the color. Rather, they don’t have a category to put the color into. Languages with several color terms have a more direct influence on its speakers. They can’t help but recognize the different shades. Categorization is a huge part of human cognition. It is how we started to understand the world around us and how we still identify friends from enemies. Not having a term for something can affect our memory and recall of the thing itself. This match between a sound and a visual input is the foundation of language itself.

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