When a colour isn’t a colour!
We’d all be forgiven for thinking that in terms of colour, blue is blue and red is red, but it seems that depending on what language we speak, our eye perceives colours – and the world – differently than someone else’s.
Physically, the human eye can perceive millions of colours, but it seems that we don’t all recognise these colours in the same way.
We’ve all heard of ‘colour blindness’ where some people can’t see differences in colours due to an absence of cone cells (the ones that are sensitive to high levels of light) in the retina. But what is less well-known is that the distribution and density of these cells also varies across people with so-called normal vision, which means that we all to experience the same colour in slightly different ways.
An individual’s colour perception is more about how their brain interprets colours to create something meaningful than about what they actually see. The perception of colour mainly occurs inside our heads and so, is subjective – and prone to personal experience – not to mention individual biological make-up.
Throughout our lives we learn to categorise objects, colours, emotions, and pretty much everything using language. Therefore, as our eyes can perceive thousands of colours, the way we communicate about colour – and the way we use colour in our everyday lives – means we split these thousands of colours up into identifiable, meaningful categories.
For what a non-expert might describe as just one colour category, painters and fashion experts have an entire vocabulary of colour terminology to refer to, and discriminate between, different shades and tones.
In fact, some languages only have two terms: dark and light and it appears that different languages and cultural groups refer to the colour spectrum differently. Dark roughly translates as cool in those languages, and light as warm. So, colours like black, blue, and green are called cool colours, while lighter colours like white, red, orange and yellow are called warm colours.
Some languages don’t even have a term for the word colour. For these groups, ‘colour’ is described through vocabulary referring to texture, physical sensation and functional purpose.
Remarkably, most of the world’s languages have five basic colour terms. As well as dark, light, and red, these languages typically have a term for yellow, and a term that denotes both blue and green – ‘grue’. Historically, Welsh had a ‘grue’ term, as did Japanese and Chinese. Nowadays, in all these languages, the original grue term has been restricted to blue, and a separate green term is used.
Many other languages such as Russian, Greek and Turkish also have two separate terms for blue – one for darker shades, and one for lighter shades. Interestingly, native Greek speakers, who have two colour terms to describe light and dark blue, are more likely, after living in the UK (where the two colours are described in English by the same colour term – blue), to see these two colours as similar – their brains interpreting their two blue colours as just one. This suggests that the way we perceive colours can change over time.
At Lancaster University, a research team thinks that this isn’t just something that happens with colour, but that different languages can influence our perceptions in all areas of life. They are investigating that way the use of and exposure to different languages changes the way we perceive everyday objects. Ultimately, this happens because learning a new language is like giving our brain the ability to interpret the world differently – including the way we see and process colours.