Can you see colors you don’t have words for?

9–7–16, Brian

How do you describe a specific color to a blind person? That’s an age old question. How about this one: How do you describe a specific color to a person with perfect vision, but who speaks a language that doesn’t have a word for that specific color? You would think this would be easy — just give an example of something that color. However, some research says it may not be that easy. Researchers went to Namibia to work with the Himba tribe, whose language has no word for the color blue. They showed them a screen with 12 squares, 11 green and 1 blue, and asked them to point out the square that is different as fast as possible. It turns out that they were very slow, or even unable, to pick out the blue square that appears severely obvious to us.

While the Himba tribe has no word for the color blue, they consider different shades of green distinct colors, and have different words for them. The next test was to show them the same arrangement of 12 squares, except now it had 1 square that was a different shade of green instead of blue.

They crushed this test. Below is the unique square.

This experiment has an interesting inspiration. When looking at historic texts, historians started to notice that blue wasn’t mentioned often. They realized that the only ancient civilization with a word for the color blue was the Egyptians. In The Odyssey, the ocean is described as “wine-dark.” Old Icelandic texts, old Chinese stories, the Koran, old Hebrew Bibles… all void of any mention of the color blue. It turns out that if you keep going further back, you can start to see colors mentioned one at a time. The earliest mentions of color are of black and white and other neutral colors, followed by red, yellow, and green.

One theory about why blue took so long to see is that it doesn’t occur in nature very much. Sure, the sky is blue. But how would you describe or even see that color if you don’t know the color? One researcher was careful not to talk about the color of the sky with his daughter for the first few years of her life. Then, he asked her what color she thinks the sky is. She initially claimed the sky had no color, it was just empty. Then she decided it was white, before eventually deciding it was indeed blue.

So the overarching question is what makes a color, a color? It is extremely unlikely that long ago humans were physically unable to see color, and gained the ability to see colors one color at a time. It is more likely a question of linguistics and neuroscience/psychology/some shit like that. Is blue the same to all of us? Is what I see as red what you would call green? Are there colors that we aren’t seeing just because there are no words for it? Do Germans see more colors than us? Are colors just a social construct? Is the patriarchy deciding what colors we’re allowed to see? The world may never know.

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