Understanding cultural colour perception

Different cultures have different ideas about colour - the ancient Greeks (along with most of the ancient world, it seems), didn’t conceive of a colour “blue”, for example. That’s the most dramatically different system of colours I know of, from our Western perceptions, but I’ve also heard that the Japanese put colour boundaries in different places, and other cultures have their own oddities (as, I’m sure, we do).

Is there anywhere I can see these differences? I’d like to understand how these different cultures see the world (especially the Greeks!) but I feel like what I need to accomplish that is a chart, visually showing the range of colour that would come under each label. Does such a thing exist anywhere?

I’m sorry I don’t have an answer; but I did very much enjoy that article, thank you. Looking forward to some factual responses myself.

I don’t know of anything like what you’re specifically asking for, but maybe specific examples of differing views within our own culture(s) might be useful in the meantime.

Example: Is the center light in a traffic light really yellow, as it’s often referred to, or is it really amber or orange? IMO, it’s definitely one of the latter, but it’s a good example of how common parlance doesn’t necessarily match up to reality. (Either that, or my eyes are off!)

That’s a great example. I’m chastised by my 3 y/o son when I say that the middle light or a school bus is yellow…because c’mon, Dad, they’re orange.

Not an answer, but you might like this test.

You’ve got a brilliant son who’s not afraid to stand up to the group-think!

Can you tell I’ve been fighting that particular battle from just about the same age? :smiley: Since around that age I’ve been accustomed to calling that color “orange” and often getting confused responses. Sometimes, I’ll call it amber as a (for some weird reason) less controversial compromise. But I refuse to call it yellow, since IT’S NOT FUCKING YELLOW!


Test was cool. I took it twice 1 st time 86 and second time 6. You really have to be careful.

That’s a variation of the FM-100 (Farnsworth-Munsell). A non-electronic version could be one of the tests used to test cultures.

I suspect the OP should look into the WCS. They would use this grid, and ask people 1) what do you call this color (e.g. I would call F3 red) and 2) when I say “blue” (insert local language), which color is the best blue?

For specific examples the OP is looking for, check out Kay’s papers, starting with the 1969 one.

Oh, and the hierarchy:

  1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, and/or grey.

E.g. Japanese: “ao” is blue, but it also covers a wide range that we would consider green. “midori” is green, and a newer word. Japanese people call traffic lights blue, yes, but it’s also historical, not that they necessarily see it as the same as a blueberry. We call something red cabbage/onion, when it is clearly purple.

That’s the Berlin-Kay Heirarchy. That’s not completely accepted. See this article:

Oh, and didn’t read the link in the OP. There are some gems of truth in there, but please take a mostly reference-free article like this with a grain of salt. The section on linguistic relativity especially suggests old research that overstates its effect. Even if the sea was in the same color category as wine, it doesn’t mean that they appear identical. Any consequences would be minor.

To be pedantic, the Japanese people call the traffic light “ao”, which, as you point out, refers to a range of colors from blue to green. They also use the term in a number of other compound nouns for things that are green (green vegetables are “ao yasai”, caterpillers are “ao mushi”, etc).

Of course, before crayons and tropical fruits were widely available, for example how badly did people need to distinguish orange? It doesn’t occur widely in nature, except maybe during fall leaves season mixed in with brown yellow and red.

Relevance - I still don’t know for sure what “puce” or “fuschia” are off the top of my head, but I do know what “turquiose” is. I supposed if I got bored I could look them up.

I guess the vocabulary is aimed at the specific needs and details of a culture.

Puce - the color of a flea. It literally means “flea” in French. Think semi-transparent insect, full of blood. Brown-purple.
Fuchsia - that’s the real spelling, and most people say “fyoo-sha.” To get pedantic, it’s named after a guy, so should be pronounced “fucks-ya”! Yup. Although with a German “ch” sound.

Completely obligatory link. The first image is a joke, i.e. not from a survey, but fits pretty well will intra-culture differences.

In English, not much. Britain has two species of orange flowers commonly considered native (one is called the Scarlet Pimpernel and the other, Hawkweed, may not actually be native), and zero edible orange native fruits or vegetables (carrots were white, yellow or purple - by the time orange carrots arrived, we already had the word ‘orange’)

Vietnamese is similarly using one word for blue to green - xanh.
One does not need to be specific when talking about which traffic light is on,
so ‘the light is xanh’ is understood…go.

So if you had a green tomato, its a xanh tomato. No need to be specific.
Of course if they need to be specific its easy,
blue = sky xanh,
green = leaf xanh.

  • (of course the only vietnamese word I wrote was ‘xanh’… and there are old and new fashions, dialects,and creoles… but thats what I was told. )

I’ve noticed that color differentiation in Japan seems to be generational. Younger generations use the word for “green” more often; same goes for red/orange/pink/purple instead of just red/purple.

The article linked in the OP uses some questionable logic to “confirm” that other cultures actually saw the word differently.

My opinion is that it is purely a linguistic artifact, and non-colourblind humans all see the same spectrum*. And by “see” I mean the full gamut of perception including qualia. You don’t get people moving from a culture with fewer colour words claiming the world now looks more colourful now they have words for pink and indigo.

  • Some women might be able to distinguish more reds because of having two pigments for red, but that’s still merely a possibility, the evidence isn’t particularly compelling yet.

I lived briefly in Japan, and moved there without knowing much of the language. I put special effort into learning the names of basic colors beforehand, figuring that with a limited vocabulary it would be helpful to at least be able to say “I want the red one” or “How much is the blue one?” when shopping.

I soon found that knowing Japanese color names had little practical value*, as nearly everyone knew the basic English color names. For orange and pink most people didn’t even seem to use the traditional Japanese names, they had adapted the English names (“orenji” and “pinku”). So I assume that contact with English speakers has had a significant influence on the way the Japanese describe colors.

*On a couple of occasions people seemed kind of impressed that I knew the Japanese names for colors, so that’s something I guess.

It depends, they’re not all the same color. The Spanish Road Code says it must be “yellow to orange in color”, which is a whole range. I’ve seen them hiliter yellow and’ve seen them as orange as the fruit.

I do like that test (largely because I got 100%! Yay! Perfect colour vision!)