Rainbows Have Seams

Did you know that the Japanese people call their traffic light ‘blue’ when it turns on? This is not because the third color – apart from red and orange – in their traffic lights system is blue; it looks exactly the same as it does everywhere else (i.e. green). It’s just that for centuries they didn’t have a separate name for the color blue. For them, blue and green are just two different shades of the same color which they call Ao. I didn’t know this surprising fact until I first saw this tweet, and then read this lovely post.

This implies that when the Japanese look at a rainbow, they recognize six distinct colors, not seven. Are they mistaken? Of course not! The choice of seven colors is arbitrary anyways. There are in fact infinite number of colors in the rainbow, which is a continuous spectrum of colors rather than a collage of seven discrete colors. There are no natural boundaries in the frequencies of visible light. It just so happened that Sir Issac Newton defined seven distinct colors because he thought that the number had some mystical, divine properties (seven days of creation, seven musical notes etc.) and that definition persisted till this day.

Now, there are other languages too that have fewer names for colors than the modern standard of ROYGBIV. You may wonder, what difference does it make if some societies have fewer names for colors? When they look at the rainbow wouldn’t they see exactly the same thing as we do? Well, as it turns out, language and words (or the lack thereof) do shape the way we perceive the world. But before we get into that, here’s a thought-provoking excerpt from the blog post I mentioned above:

Imagine that you had a rainbow-colored piece of paper that smoothly blends from one color to the other. This will be our map of color space. Now just as you would on a real map, we draw boundaries on it. This bit here is pink, that part is orange, and that’s yellow. Here is what such a map might look like to a native English speaker.

But if you think about it, there’s a real puzzle here. Why should different cultures draw the same boundaries? If we speak different languages with largely independent histories, shouldn’t our ancestors have carved up the visual atlas rather differently?

Apparently, some research had been done to answer this question, and it revealed some fascinating insights. It turns out that largely unique and independent cultures do take different evolutionary paths in naming colors. As language evolves, most cultures first come up with words for black and white, usually followed by red. However, eventually they do “somehow gravitate towards the same choices for how to slice up the visual cake“.

The picture that’s emerging is that colors aren’t quite random slices of the visual pie. They’re somewhat basic categories that humans from different cultures gravitate towards, and must have to do with how the biology of how we see the world. In other words, rainbows have seams.

That’s just fascinating to me.


Back to my earlier comment about how languages shape not only the way we talk but also how we think, experience, and perceive the world. In a post I wrote several years ago, I referred to some research that showed how the languages we speak can have a profound effect on the way we think. For example, in a study the participants were asked to describe a key. Half of the participants were native German speakers who used words like “hard”, “heavy” and “metal’ more often than the other participants. The other half of the participants were native Spanish speakers who were more likely to use words like “golden”, “tiny” and “shiny”. The difference in the choice of words to describe the same concrete object can be explained by the fact that the word ‘key’ is a masculine noun in German and a feminine word in Spanish.

The researcher also performed some tests to see whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception. Indeed, the data suggested that the the Russians were quicker to distinguish between two shades of blue, as the Russian language makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy) colors. The English speakers have only one word, “blue”, for both shades and hence were relatively slow in recognizing the shade variance.

In conclusion, she writes:

I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.

So when Nietzsche called language a “prison house” and Wittgenstein wrote that “the limits of my language means limits of my world”, they weren’t kidding!


One response to “Rainbows Have Seams

  1. Pingback: Attention on language (and linguistic boundaries of identity) « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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