The Power of Words: Part 2
Is our perception of color determined by our vocabulary?
Words shape the way our minds function. Without words for complex, abstract things like “ideas,” “thought,” “desire,” or “love,” do these things even exist? Without a words to describe the physical things in our lives — chairs, desks, doors — do those objects lose their importance and become just another part of the scenery? [Find out]
What about color? Something as measurable and quantifiable as the spectrum of visible light surely doesn’t vary with our vocabulary.
Not quite. Color is a spectrum. The way we divide it into groups is somewhat arbitrary and largely depends on how many words you know for talking about color. Without words like “pink” or “maroon” isn’t all red just red? This connection between our vocabulary and the way we describe color goes even deeper. Our very perception of the visible spectrum is entirely dependent on the words we use to categorize color.
In northern Namibia a semi-nomadic tribe known as the Himba use a very unique system of classifying color [video here]. In their culture there are five words to describe the visible spectrum. To the Himba, the sky is black, water is white, and the trees are three different kinds of green. These shades of green — obvious to the Himba — appear nearly identical to a westerner, and yet, certain shades of green and blue appear identical to the Himba. Without a word to describe blue, the Himba don’t see blue. Well, not technically — yes, of course, their brains still receive the “blue” part of the spectrum, but without having a word to divide that portion of the spectrum from other areas, “blue” simply goes unnoticed.
The words we use to describe color actually change the way we see color.
So, really, what color is the sky? Ask Homer (the Greek poet) and he’ll call it “bronze.” The Himba call it zoozu, a dark or black color. A toddler might call it white. Is anyone more correct than another? Can we really assign a color to that vast expanse of nothing?
In case you’re still curious, here’s a RadioLab episode to tell you more: