Why the language we speak affects the way we see colors

Why the language we speak affects the way we see colors


The human eye can perceive millions of colors, but not all of us recognize them in the same way.

There are those who can not see differences in tone – the so-called color blindness – due to a defect or absence of cells in the retina that are sensitive to high levels of light: the cones.

But the distribution and density of these cells also varies among people with “normal vision,” which makes us all experience the same color in slightly different ways.

In addition to our biological makeup, the perception of color is less about what we see and more about how our brain interprets colors to create something meaningful.The perception of color happens mainly within our minds and therefore is subjective and is influenced by personal experience.

Take as an example people with synesthesia , who are able to experience the perception of color with letters and numbers. Synesthesia is often described as the union of the senses, when the person can see sounds and hear colors .But the colors they hear differ depending on the case.

Another example is the classic optical illusion of Adelson’s chessboard. Here, although two squares are exactly the same color, our brain does not perceive it that way.


Since we are born we learn to categorize objects, colors, emotions and practically everything that is meaningful using the same language.

And although our eyes can perceive thousands of colors, the way we communicate about color-and the way we use colors in our day-to-day life-forces us to include this enormous variety in identifiable categories.

Colored fabrics
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Image caption Fashion experts or painters are accustomed to naming different shades of the same color.

Painters and fashion experts, for example, use a color terminology to refer and discriminate nuances and shadows that could be described with a single term by a non-expert.

Different languages and cultural groups also divide the spectrum of colors differently.

Dark and clear

In some languages, such as Dani, spoken in Papua New Guinea, and Bassa, spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, there are only two terms: dark and light . The dark is translated as cold in those languages, and the clear as warm. So colors like black, blue and green are labeled as cold, while lighter shades such as white, red, orange and yellow are considered warm.

The warlpiri ethnic group that inhabits the Northern Territory of Australia does not even have a term for the word “color”. For this and other cultural groups, what we call “color” is described in a broader vocabulary that refers to texture, physical sensation and functional purpose.

Himbas in Namibia.
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Image caption The himba ethnic group in Namibia uses five basic terms to refer to colors, unlike other cultures that use only two.

However, in most of the world’s languages there are five basic terms to refer to colors.

Cultures as diverse as the himba in the plains of Namibia and the berinmo in the lush tropical forests of Papua New Guinea employ these five-term systems.

As for dark, clear and red, in their languages there is usually a term for yellow and another that denotes both blue and green.

Historically, the Welsh had a term to call blue and green, “glas”, as well as in Japanese and Chinese cultures.

Nowadays, in these languages, the term has been restricted to blue and a separate term is used to refer to green.

A single blue?

This occurs due to developments within the language, such as the case of Japanese, or through lexical loans, as with Welsh.

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Image caption The Greeks use two terms to describe the light and dark blue: “ghalazio” and “ble”.

Russian, Greek, Turkish and many other languages also have two terms for blue:one refers exclusively to darker shades and one to lighter shades.

The way we perceive colors can also change throughout life. The Greeks, who use two terms to describe light and dark blue – “ghalazio” and “ble” -, are more likely to detect more similarities in these two colors after living long periods in the United Kingdom. There, there is only one term: blue.

This is because after being exposed to an environment where English is dominant, their brains begin to interpret the colors “ghalazio” and “ble” as part of the same color category.

The eye of a woman and her face painted in different colors.
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Image caption The perception of colors is a subjective construction of our mind.

But this does not only happen with color. Different languages can influence our perceptions in all fields of life.

In our laboratory at the University of Lancaster (United Kingdom) we are investigating how the use and exposure to different languages changes the way we perceive everyday objects. Ultimately, this happens because learning a new language is like giving our brains the ability to interpret the world in a different way, including how we see and process colors.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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