Roses are red & violets are also red
September 16, 2009 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Does everyone categorise shades of colours in the same way? I'm interested in the way shades of colours are bundled together in different cultures/languages.

An example: The logo above this question: Ask (green) Meta (blue) Filter (yellow).

Within the Google logo there are also blue, green and yellow (the "G"s, the "L" and the 2nd "o").

The blues, greens and yellows used aren't the same shades, but if I was asked "what colour is the Google L and what colour is Ask?", I'd have to say both are indeed green.

1. Would someone from any other culture say that the Google L is "x" and the Ask is "y" ?

2. Would someone from any other culture say that the 1st google "o" and the 2nd "o" are just a different shade of the same colour?
posted by selton to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In Japan, the traffic lights turn blue, not green - though they certainly looked green to me when I visited. That color is called ao.

I'm sure there are other examples, but that's the only one I've personally experienced.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:16 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

This has been well documented: everyones' eyes see color differently. For example, I would never call the word "Filter" in the above logo yellow. To me it is yellow-green (more green than yellow, but a definite mix of both.)
posted by Eicats at 2:17 PM on September 16, 2009

Best answer: You mean like blue and green having the same name in some cultures?
posted by effbot at 2:18 PM on September 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if I'm fully understanding your question though... I really don't think culture plays into it, but it is simply the difference in the way everyone sees color differently. I'll see if I can find a link to documentation...
posted by Eicats at 2:18 PM on September 16, 2009

Best answer: (also see this page)
posted by effbot at 2:20 PM on September 16, 2009

People don't necessarily categorize shades in the same way even within a single culture.

I am reminded of a lengthy argument involving meslef and a number of college housemates—all caucasian, middle-class, midwestern American males—over whether a certain bluish-greenish object was "blue" or "green."

Colors displayed on a computer monitor add yet another, possibly undesired, level of complexity, as the same RGB value may produce different shades on different monitors.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:22 PM on September 16, 2009

Here's a link that has innumerable Q/A about color:

I noticed that a couple of questions even cover why one person might see color differently with each eye, and why color perception varies in different societies. Hope that helps!
posted by Eicats at 2:23 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This Straight Dope question might be up your alley.
posted by box at 2:24 PM on September 16, 2009

posted by Eicats at 2:24 PM on September 16, 2009

So sorry! I'm having some problems with permissions here! The link I was trying to provide is:
posted by Eicats at 2:25 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

From my experience knowledge of these kinds of distinctions does not travel well, because they can not be easily communicated between languages and cultural constructions.

However, I would point out that cultures have varying takes on musical scales. Such as semitones used in Asian music that are not easily noted in Western parlance. What one person might call a distinct note, another might call a bent note.

I would have to imagine that close color distinctions would only arise in situations where it matters. By and large, cultures are not able to standardize colors very well. In industrial cultures, for instance, monitors display all different shades of green for the google L. Likewise, dyes in traditional cultures do not likely produce consistent color all the time and surely fade with age.

If, for instance, a culture were to interact with a specific vegetable which had to be picked when it reached an exact color, then a distinction may form between colors that the West takes to be the same.

Joseph Campbell makes similar arguments for Mythology and pursing this line of thought may yield some actual examples.

Additionally, there are several popular histories out there about dye, those may yield historical answers to your question.
posted by DumbPoet at 2:29 PM on September 16, 2009

I am reminded of a lengthy argument involving meslef and a number of college housemates—...—over whether a certain bluish-greenish object was "blue" or "green."

For a more concrete example: Tennis balls: green or yellow? Discuss.
You'd be surprised (or maybe not) how much controversy that causes.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:37 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: though they certainly looked green to me when I visited. That color is called ao.

Japanese have a green for plants and stuff, midori. Ao(i) is more a greenish-blue thing.

When I was there the lights were indeed more of a cyan not the green of American traffic lights.

Ao extends from cyan to the blue of the sky. For really deep blue the Japanese have another term, 紺 / 紺碧, kon (navy blue) or konpeki (azure), though I only have heard the latter from konpeki no kantai.
posted by Palamedes at 2:42 PM on September 16, 2009

Best answer: An example: The logo above this question: Ask (green) Meta (blue) Filter (yellow).
Understand, too, that your categorization of those colors are influenced by the grouping itself. For instance, if the "Ask" were red or orange, and not dark green, you may, then, identify the "Filter" as green, not yellow.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:42 PM on September 16, 2009

THis may or may not be helpful, but if you can find a copy of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, he goes into this starting on page 51.
posted by Dr. Send at 2:53 PM on September 16, 2009

There's a huge, huge amount of academic research on this in psychology, linguistics and anthropology, and it has been very central to debates about the sapir-whorf hypothesis as well as other issues of cultural relativity in cognition. It's not my area but, for once, the wikipedia article seems decent (and moderately balanced).
posted by advil at 3:01 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

As an empirical question about languages, this has been subject to some controversy. Looking into it, you're likely to find references to the Piraha, whose language supposedly has several weird features including no fixed words for colors. That's the cartoon version, but apparently the situation is more complicated.
NPR story about Piraha
New Yorker article about Piraha
Language Log post about Piraha (this blog is run by linguists and is a good place to search for info on questions like this about languages, they often debunk fake stories of the "Eskimos have 100 words for snow" variety)
Languagehat post about recent Piraha and Sapir-Whorf stuff (with links to his earlier discussions of those topics)

You may also be interested to look into what's called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:09 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know if, say, fashion designers or interior decorators are considered a different culture, but I imagine my "purple" is their "violet" or "burgundy", and my "blue" is their "cyan" or "aquamarine" or whatever.
posted by losvedir at 3:19 PM on September 16, 2009

Best answer: Some answers to this previous question are also relevant here.
posted by eatyourcellphone at 3:20 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: I haven't read all the links posted all the way through yet (they're all very good) and I'm also still digesting the torrent of interesting information and opinions you all have given me.

Sincere thanks to everyone, whenever I post a question that's been bugging me for months I know the answers will always be excellent.

I don't mean to stop anyone else posting, please do.
And Thorzdad has brought up something that I never even considered.

posted by selton at 3:26 PM on September 16, 2009

Not only is there serious business anthropology papers written about it, which are linked from other sites, but I recently read two of Michel Pastoureau's books on color in translation; Blue, which was eh, and Black, which was better.

Black, especially, describes color theory in general in the Medieval period, with some focus on the general trends, in history, of whether black was a color or not and the resultant discussion of intensity as a color determinant, versus hue.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:41 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

There was a post on the blue with a link to a page of colors, and the various names assigned to them. I assign blue names well into the range other people start calling purple names. I'd love to rediscover the link.
posted by theora55 at 4:14 PM on September 16, 2009

The other famous example in linguistics of a language with a color-word system radically unlike ours is Yeli Dnye, spoken in Papua New Guinea. (Just giving you the search term here, since I don't know what the current state of thinking is about the language.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:45 PM on September 16, 2009

The Straight Dope article is consistent with stuff I've read earlier on the subject. Mainly, that languages are pretty consistent in the ways they identify colors, (languages that use 3 different color words always have a word for red, etc.). This is actually very telling, because it implies that people don't see different things, they just happen to have different labeling tools available to them.

Another common thing people say is "Eskimos have x number of words for snow." (The actual number used seems to always vary depending on the speaker.) The real issue isn't that they recognize more types of snow, but Aleut (i.e., 'Eskimo') is a highly synthetic language (as opposed to isolating.) More or less, synthetic languages express more content in a single word than more isolating languages. So, while it may only take one word in Aleut to say "crunchy snow," it takes two in English (because English is more isolating). Applying this back to colors, some people might speak a language with only terms for "black" and "white." But show them an apple and they might say "that's black like a strawberry is black." In other words, the tool for expressing a particular meaning is present in the language, but the tool to do so isn't necessarily the same tool that other languages use.

All this is really a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language relativism. (As linked by LobesterMitten.) I think relativism is a meaningless concept to begin with because it cannot assert its own truth-value. (To borrow a phrase, it's about as meaningful as saying the invisible unicorn is pink.) But, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its weak form merely states that the language you speak influences some ideas you have. As in, if you're a hammer, and you see a screw, you might be more likely to think of it as a nail. But, even as a hammer, you still have the ability to tell the difference between a nail and a screw. All that's at issue is if it's worth the effort to make such a fine distinction. And that, more or less, is what I've been writing entirely too much about: Yes, cultures might have different ideas about color classification, but people in those cultures can still communicate the same semantic information as people in any other culture, provided they want/need to.
posted by ifandonlyif at 8:09 PM on September 16, 2009

To take things to an extreme, we had quite row in my office as to whether Storm Shadow in this image is wearing black or white.
posted by speedo at 8:20 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Hebrew, 'light blue' is a separate color from blue. This isn't true for other shades (they just add on the word light, which is bahir)
orange=katom, light orange=katom bahir
yellow=tzahov, light yellow=tzahov bahir
blue=kachol, light blue=tchelet
posted by alon at 9:20 PM on September 16, 2009

Best answer: situation in Russian is similar as in hebrew. There is no single word in Russian for what you call "blue". "Blue" is two distinct colours: голубой / golubój, which is english "light blue", and синий / sínij, english "dark blue". These two are conceptualized like different colours the same way as, say, red and yellow, and not recognizing their difference will earn you astonished glances.
posted by megob at 12:05 AM on September 17, 2009

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