Words index  Vivian Cook

Seeing Colours

While all human eyes work in the same way, the way that basic colours are named differs from one language to another. A basic colour is one which is a single word like red rather than pillarbox red and high frequency, red rather than crimson or scarlet. Berlin and Kay discovered that the use of colours could be described in terms of priority on the following scale. Languages with the smallest number of basic colour terms use only the two at the left black and white; language with one more colour-name add red, with two more add green and yellow, and so on along the scale until they get to the maximum of eleven colour-names. In other words if a language has a word blue it also has one for red; if it has brown it also has blue, and so on. The selection of basic colour names is not random but goes from left to right on this scale.

Berlin and Kay universal color scaleOf course people can describe colours in any language , say by light red, or comparison sky-blue. It is simply that the basic colours they talk differ in number. To see how difficult it may be to envisage colours in another language, English people find it amazing that Greek has two colours ble and galazio where English has one blue; to an English eyes they look like dark and light variants rather than different colours. Japanese as well as having two ‘blues’ ao, mizuiro, has two ‘greens’ midori, kimidori. One interesting  questions is what happens when you learn another language do you still have the same feel for colours or do you start to ‘see’ the colours named in the new language? Panos Athanapolous has shown that Greeks who know English categorise the ‘blues’ differently from monolinguals and Miho Sasaki has shown the same for Japanese ‘greens’. Learning another languagechanges the way you see the world, almost literally.

Linguistic Relativity   Arbitrariness of meaning

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