That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!

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7 thoughts on “That dress – and linguistics…

  1. Deirdre Devlin says:

    You should write a book about all of this aimed at the mass market. Remember the success of “Eats shoots and leaves?”

    It’s really interesting.

    D

    Sent from my iPad

  2. The “Orange” tradition has nothing to fear from traditional Irish speakers? I jest.

  3. Have you heard of the podcast Lexicon Valley?

  4. […] A correspondent (a very important correspondent – my wife’s election agent!) kindly drew my attention to an article which covers some of the aspects of the colour issue I raised last week. […]

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