Life Without Green
Did you know that people categorize colors differently from culture to culture? I’m not just talking about having different words for different colors from language to language. I mean actually seeing and understanding colors differently.
Here are just a few examples from Alan S. Kennedy’s Color/Language Project:
- Hanuno’o language, spoken in the Philippines, has only four basic color words: black, white, red and green.
- Pirahã language, spoken by an Amazonian tribe, is said to have no fixed words for colors. According to linguist Dan Everett, if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, “This looks like blood”.
- Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of “coal” from that of “darkness”.
- Spanish has several words which correspond with the basic English word for “brown”: brown skin and brown sugar are moreno; brown hair is castaño; brown bears are pardo, but other brown animals are marrón, as are eyes, cars, paint and clothing – although many Latin American speakers would use the word café for a basic brown.
- Shona language (a Bantu language from Southern Africa) has no one word for our “green” concept; they have one word for yellowish-green, and a different word for bluish-green.
Researchers have long sought to understand the relationship between color perception and language, a line of inquiry that’s inextricable from larger questions about how language shapes thought, how thought shapes language, and how biological processes factor in. Color is a fertile subject for these explorations, given that we see it (biological process), interpret it (thought), and name it (language)—though not necessarily in that order. And herein lies an interesting chicken-egg situation.
The universalist view of color categorization proposes that people ultimately categorize and remember colors consistently throughout the world, despite variations in culture and language, given the universal nature of the human biological visual system. It became popular in the late 1960s through groundbreaking research by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, outlined in their book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. The relativist view conversely proposes that color perception very much depends on culture and language. It’s gained steam over the years through criticism of Berlin and Kay’s research methods, plus further cross-cultural studies like this one. A whole Wikipedia page has emerged to chronicle the evolving debate!
Just trying to fathom life without “green” is enough for me.