colour and language

One of the things that #TheDress controversy has highlighted is that colour is not as fixed as the majority of people believe. We tend to think that objects have a single colour and that we all see that colour the same way. However, in the image below you can see two central grey patches that are physically identical but probably look different in colour to you. My experience is that the majority of people would explain this as the two grey patches being the same colour but looking different in colour because of the background. An illusion.


I don’t agree with this way of thinking however. The colours we see when we look at something do depend upon the other colours around it but this is not a a special case. It’s not unusual, as Tom Jones would say. It’s how colour works. If it is an illusion then it’s happening all of the time, almost whenever you are looking at colour. So what is the real colour of something? Is it even sensible talk about an object having a single fixed real colour?

There is a body of research emerging that suggests that the language that we use influences how we see things. Jules Davidoff, a Professor at Goldsmiths University, went to Namibia where he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe, who speak a language that has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green. When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they couldn’t pick out which one was different from the others. But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English. When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one, even when the difference was so small that we would find it very difficult to see the odd one out. See below for an example.


In the image above – a screenshot from one of Davidoff’s experiments – the Himba tribe can easily see that the green patch at about 1 o’clock is different from the others.

In fact, some people even think that in ancient times we could not see blue at all because we had no word for it. In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green? It turns out that most ancient languages (including Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew) did not have a word for blue. Does this mean that they didn’t see blue? Is blue a relatively modern phenomenon? There is a thought-provoking article about this by Kevin Loria at Business Insider. Read more here.

2 thoughts on “colour and language

  1. Steve, there’s been some discussion about whether the experiment shown in the documentary has ever been published – do you know?

    A very similar-looking experiment conducted on students in California was published in 2006, although the two greens are more different and the blue much more similar than they appear in the BBC documentary.

    Also the american students were reportedly only about 6% (25 microseconds) slower in spotting the odd square having the same colour name compared to the one having a different name, and only in the right visual field. If the far greater discrepancy for the Himba played out in the documentary is real it would be very strange if it had never been published. Or did the BBC massively gild the lily?

    “Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left”
    Aubrey L. Gilbert, Terry Regier, Paul Kay, and Richard B. Ivry, 2006.

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