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Friday, November 28, 2008


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Colours are strange notion. What light we see is probably some random accident of evolution. Colours are merely different sizes of wavelengths. Yet, colours define our lives. Happiness is bright and sorrow is grey, wedding is red and funeral is white, red rose is love and yellow rose is friendship, etc. Green of greenery sooths us, and blueness of ocean calms us; bright red invokes danger, and dark night frightens us. We’ve internalized colours so much that we have given meanings to arbitrary difference is shades of light. Cultures have defined colours and colours have defined limits of cultural thinking. More developed a culture is, more names it has for colours. Ancient Greeks just knew four colours: red, blue, green and white.

Even though humans everywhere on earth can see all colours, not all languages have words for all colours, and if there isn’t a word for it, it isn’t really. To give common example, if a man cannot tell cyan apart from sky blue, does he still sees them differently? Scientifically, when asked specifically, yes, but not really in everyday life. Ask him to locate cyan wool and he will come home with sky blue. On the other hand woman can, and for her, world is different. Isn’t it interesting that our understanding defines our language but our language also defines our understanding. People who don’t have words for it find a notion difficult to comprehend. 

A research about words for colours in different cultures lead to following fascinating hierarchy:

  1. All languages contain terms for white and black.
  2. If a language contains 3 terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains 4 terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow but not both.
  4. If a language contains 5 terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains 6 terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains 7 terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains 8 or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, gray, or some combination of these.