Language and Colour Boundaries/Perception – blue or green, and how red is your wine?

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The whole “blue/black-white/gold” dress photo that’s been doing the rounds in the last week or so reminded me of a very interesting point about language and perception of color.

As the dress debate went global and multilingual, perhaps not all of the disagreement on the colours may be down to how an individual’s brain is interpreting light information from the eyes. For decades, linguists have gone back and forth over whether the names for colours affect how we perceive them.

“When the orange, orange robin goes bob, bob, bobbin’ along…”

Think about it: red wine, red hair, robin red breast – these are all colour-specific descriptions that are inaccurate at best. Or, at least, they’re inaccurate now. Just a few centuries ago, “orange” as a range on the colour spectrum was simply part of “red” without a named colour category of its own. White wine, black eye… there are many examples in everyday language where the description of colour clearly doesn’t match the reality.

How colours are coded varies between languages too. For example, working with Japanese students on a beginner book, there was an exercise where students had to describe items of clothing with colours (white shirt, blue dress, etc.). After a few weeks, I noticed that they would frequently describe grey things as black. It became clear that the boundary between black and grey in Japanese was not the same as in English. Those “grey pants” – ‘charcoal’ if I’m being specific – were undeniably grey to every student I taught for three years. 

In Russian, light blue (“goluboy”) and dark blue (“siniy”) are two entirely separate colours, rather than shades of one main category. Japanese borrowed the English word “pink” because the Japanese word is more of a peach colour than the kind of hot pink they want to describe.

A common cause of confusion in different world languages is when something stops being green and starts being blue. While there are areas in the spectrum where it may be a bluey-green or a greeny-blue, for most people, even a mixed shade tends to fall clearly on one side of the blue-green boundary. 

However, blue and green as discrete colours is something of a new concept in most of the world’s major languages. Going back further in history, blue, green and yellow were all part of one discrete colour boundary.

This parrot is one colour

It’s common for children to ponder whether they see the same red as everyone else, but, as language teachers, we need to consider whether our blue is the same as our students blue. Of course, this concept of categorisation expands to most elements of language. As a European living in East Asia, it’s very clear that the boundaries between “skinny”-“slim”-“chubby”-“fat” are in very different places to where I’m from!

For a deeper look at this, I highly recommend “Through The Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher for a very readable and enjoyable (and perception challenging!) look at how colour and language, among other language concepts we probably think of as universal, differ among the languages of the world.

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