Basic Colour Terms

A second video I am doing research for at the moment concerns colour; specifically colour perception and colour terminology. I am interested in several related aspects, but haven’t quite worked out how (if!) they will come together into something coherent. This blog post is an attempt to summarise and work out where I’m up to with this research.


The development of colour terminology:

In ‘Through The Language Glass’ Guy Deutscher writes about colour terminology. He tells the story of how William Gladstone noticed a paucity of colour terms and their apparently erratic usage in the writing of Homer. Gladstone’s conclusion was that Homer had an underdeveloped ability to perceive colour, compared to present day colour perception. His idea was that colour perception had evolved over time. Deutscher goes through various twists and turns from this story but the upshot is that Galdstone was wrong to suggest a deficit of colour perception, but he was onto something when he noticed an underdeveloped language for colour.

Colour perception and terms for colour description do not develop together, people may be able to see colour as well as we do, but not have the need for the number of colour terms that we use. Deutscher makes the point that we live in a world saturated by synthetic, single colour items whereas the natural world is filled with things that are more variegated.

In the 60s Berlin and Kay studied speakers from 20 different languages directly and collated evidence from 98 languages over all. Their research suggested that colour terms are adopted in a consistent order. First black and white, then red, next yellow then green or green then yellow. Then blue and then brown. They suggested an order for up to 11 terms (next including purple, grey, orange and pink). Later experiments have not supported these 11 basic colours, but some evidence seems to support the order of black & white, red, yellow, green and blue acquisition. (For example, this colour order is used as the structure for this course about colour). The logic for this order of acquisition is to do with things in our natural environment – day/night, light/dark, blood, plants etc.

Deutscher is more measured in his remarks as to whether such an order can be considered universal. He notes that there is not necessarily equivalence between colour terms in different languages. Colour terms split up a continuum and they may vary in terms of what their focus is (what is taken to be the prototypical example of a colour) and in terms of where they set the boundary between one colour and another. He raises a potentially more interesting point about whether colour terminology can actually influence what we perceive.

The influence of colour terminology on perception:

Deutscher describes several experiments that investigate whether colour words actually influence colour perception. For example Russian has two distinct colour terms for colours for ‘blue’:  ‘siniy’ (dark blue) and ‘goluboy’ (light blue). In one experiment Russian and English speakers were shown 3 blue squares; 1 alone on a top row and a row of 2 below. One of the squares in the bottom row was identical to the upper square and participants had to indicate which one by pushing a button as quickly as they could. The reaction time of Russain speakers turned out to depend not just on the objective distance between shades but also on the borderline between siniy and goluboy.

If the mis-matching square was 2 shades along in the light direction (thus across the border into goluboy from the 2 identical squares) the average time it took Russians to press the button was shorter than if it was 2 shades along in the dark direction (thus all squares would be described as ‘siniy’). When English speakers were tested with the same set up there was no skewing effect. Here’s a better explanation from New Scientist.

Colour perception, light, the eye and the brain.

LIGHT: Isaac Newton was the first person to demonstrate colour as ‘original and connate properties’ of light. Previously it was thought that light was illuminent (white) and that it could take on other properties through its interaction with matter. From his work we know that colour is not inherent in objects, but seeing colour is to do with the quantity and kind of rays that objects reflect. Colour perception occurs with the interaction of light, our eyes and our brains.

THE EYE: Thomas Young (1773–1829) proposed that all color sensations could be derived from three processes in the retina that are sensitive, respectively, to blue, green, and red and James Clerk Maxwell who showed mathematically that light interacts with structures in the retina to give rise to the sensation of sight.

THE BRAIN: We perceive colour when photons received on the retina send nerve signals to the brain. I haven’t done much research around this process although have come across the suggestion that colour is interpreted differently by different parts of the brain (e.g. system 1 thinking – largely unconscious and automatic, and system 2 thinking – conscious and requiring more effort). The brain is where colour associations are elicited, where we draw upon prior knowledge and experience.

Newton was criticised by Goethe in his ‘Theory of Colours’. I have yet to read Goethe’s book but in an article “Weaving The Rainbow, Visions of Colour in World History” by Robert Finlay writes that: “For Netwton colours are in are heads and for Goethe colours are in the world.” Finlay traces both the physiological development of colour perception and the development of its cultural significance, exploring an interrelationship between what is in the world, what happens in our eyes and their interface with the brain. He suggests that the two can never be completely separated. (As an aside Finlay mentions how Newton identified seven primary colours in the spectrum to make it match with the seven notes in the musical scale at that time. Newton saw this correspondence as confirmation of the divine harmony of nature, thus cultural assumptions influenced his work too). As well as writing about Newton and Goethe, he cites Wittgenstein’s later book ‘Remarks on Colour’ (1950) which he says “took place upon a fault line dividing the followers of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) from those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1727).” Finlay’s article is in some sense an attempt to answer Wittgenstein’s question about whether it is possible to establish a natural history of colour.

Deutscher adds another dimension – language – to the study of colour and perception. It is in our minds that language and vision interact and this, I think, is the crux of what I am interested in. So my next step, perhaps, is to read Goethe and Wittgenstein’s ‘On Colour.’ I know the latter is meant to be notoriously difficult to read (I have seen some of the video where Gary Hill films his daughter reading it out loud!) But perhaps with the help of Deutscher and Finlay it will enable me to think through the relationship between language and vision a little bit more. We shall see!