"Natural" Language and Color Perception


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I have read Chomsky and Wittgenstein on "natural" language. Both are ignorant of empirical facts. Ayn Rand avoided their problems by not venturing too far beyond her range of knowledge. Rand knew perhaps four languages (Russian, French, German, and English). I trust that Wittgenstein at least spoke German and English, but also may have been a polyglot. That basis at least gives you some perspective when discussing "what people mean by what they say." The problems are deeper and I only happened upon some clues myself because of my own interests in language.

I am strongly influenced by the survey results of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969, cited below). Among their summary items was the claim that people do not develop works for purple and brown until they differentiate blue from green.

This is significant - if not startling - because we too easily assume that colors are inherent in the natural world and even our paleolithic ancestors must have seen the same world of trees and lakes, sky and clouds, sunrises, sunsets, and rainbows that we do. Maybe they did. But that is not how language evolved.

Writing in "Michelle Marder Kamhi's "Who Says That's Art" Thorn offered this insight.

Speaking of color blindness and greens... A couple of years ago I got a nice, green, plaid as a christmas present from my employer. I really liked it, so i've kept it around. When I had a couple of friends over they also commented on it, to which I responded:

"Yeah, I like it too. And that green really goes well with the yellows and oranges..."


"Yes, the plaid."

"It's not green"

"Yes it is"

"Nooo, it's grey!"

And so on, and so forth, until I took a photo of it. Brough it into Photoshop, used the color picker, aaand; "Look, it's green!".

Curious, I asked my friends at work the next day. They all agreed that it was grey. No doubt at all.

I find it interesting that so many percieved that simple color wrong.

==> As an aside: Thorn is a photographer and in his Introduction to OL (here), down a few posts, he notes that Internet Explorer and Chrome display his work differently. Indeed, they do. He did not mention which pictures are TIFFs and which are JPEGs. This spring, I commuted to work on the bus and often chatted with a state museum employee. An avid photographer himself, he complained about a having to fiddle with the drivers for a new monitor for his computer. He explained to me that TIFF and JPEG deliver different information. TIFFs are richer and can be edited more subtly. If our eyes and brain interpret our world, what then of filtering through computers, or print, or paint (oil, water, latex, tempera), crayolas, pastels, colored pencils, inks, tints, washes,...

By xiaoJ // May 31, 2008
"In the late 1970s, the World Color Survey looked at 110 languages from non-industrialized countries worldwide (it is thought that color saturation in industrialized nations skews results for languages like English and French). The survey found that when all the data was plotted, six cross-linguistic peaks emerged, corresponding to English’s pink/red, brown, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Some peaks were taller than others, and some languages had color terms that did not fit into the major peaks, but the survey provided evidence that we’re all more or less looking at the same rainbow."

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.
Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

From Wikipedia
Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate
There are two formal sides to the color debate, the universalist and the relativist. The universalist side claims that the biology of all human beings is all the same, so the development of color terminology has absolute universal constraints. The relativist side claims that the variability of color terms cross-linguistically (from language to language) points to more culture-specific phenomena. Because color exhibits both biological and linguistic aspects, it has become a deeply studied domain that addresses the relationship between language and thought.[2]
The color debate was made popular in large part due to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s famous 1969 study and their subsequent publishing of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.[3]
Berlin and Kay also found that, in languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:
All languages contain terms for black and white.
If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or gray.
[2] Seidner, Stanley S. (1982). Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective. Bruxelles: Centre de recherche sur le pluralinguisme Press
[3] Berlin, Brent & Kay, Paul (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
However, Wikipedia's writers and editors blundered here. And the error opens the door to perceptions about how languages evolve. Freud noted that in dreams, objects (persons, events) sometimes take on their opposite meaning. Also, less saliently, they ignored cultural borrowings, which the basic investigations disallowed in seeking the roots of how people perceive and speak about colors.

From Wikipedia
Distinction of blue and green in various languages
Hungarian makes the distinction between green (zöld) and blue (kék), and also distinguishes black (fekete). Intermediate colors between green and blue are commonly referred to as zöldeskék (literally greenish-blue) or kékeszöld (bluish-green), but names for specific colors in this continuum—like turquoise (türkiz)—also exist. Particular shades of a color can also have separate names, such as azure (azúr).
It is obvious that turquoise (literally "Turkish") and azure are borrowed, not only within Hungarian but across all languages. Azure comes from Arabic by way of Persian because of trade in the stone we came to call lapis lazuli.

The problem of black and white speaks to growth in vocabularies by differentiation: hyper, hypo; super, sub; friend, fiend. Black and white in Hungarian are fekete (pronounce all three syllables feh-keh-teh) feher (like
"fay-hair"). They are at root the same word, but changed slightly for meaning. We still have vestiges of that specifically with blank (Spanish blanco=white) and black.

(In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche pointed out that in Latin war and beauty are rooted in bello/bella, something wonderful or astounding that grabs us.)

See also in this Forum, "Can color exist to a blind person?"

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