There’s No Such Thing As Blue.

Jan 29, 2013   //   by admin   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  No Comments

GrueIN SHORT: We don’t just talk about the world we experience, we experience the world we talk about. So if the world we experience isn’t how we’d like it to be, our first stop should be to change how we  talk about it! 

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

[Ludwig Wittgenstein, 19-20th century philosopher]

(~1081 words, approx 5-8 mins to read.)

First, a question to ponder for a moment or two: What colour is the sky?

Last year I discovered something very interesting. When I say ‘discovered’ I guess I mean I learned something I’d never come across before, something new to me that made me think and I thought perhaps it was time I shared my new learning with you.

What I discovered is that many ancient languages don’t have a word for the colour blue.*

Now, you might suppose that not having a word equivalent to ‘blue’ would simply mean they had a slightly different way of categorising colours, perhaps grouping colours according to what made most sense in their environment. And you’d be at least partially right. I discovered that some languages and cultures do have ways of differentiating, like Vietnamese which uses the same word to describe the colour of leaves and sky- ‘xanh’ – but labels it as ‘leaf-xanh’ and ‘sky-xanh’.  Others do not separate their concept of green and blue at all so linguists have coined the terms ‘grue’ or ‘bleen’ for a word describing both colours.

But there’s actually something more interesting going on; a series of experiments  began about a decade ago, one of which has become quite famous, to see if the fact that a language lacked a word for something meant it actually affected people’s perception and experience of that something. In this case, would not having a word for ‘blue’ change the way people actually perceived the colour blue?

The researchers found a tribe in Africa, the Himba, who have no separate words for blue and green, just one general descriptor for that whole section of the visible spectrum. As part of their experiments they showed them various sets of 16 block-coloured squares and asked them to point out any squares that were different from the majority. Logically, you’d expect that even without the words to describe blue and green, they’d still to be able to perceive and then point out the odd ones, wouldn’t they?

What they found was unexpected. The tribe did very well picking the odd squares in the set most of the time, but when the set was a mix of green and blue they took a lot longer to decide on the odd ones out or they couldn’t find them at all.

While you’re reading this you may have wondered, “Well perhaps the entire tribe is blue-green colour-blind?” That was actually screened for in the experiment using a variety of other techniques, so what is left for us to conclude then? It can only be this:

The way we describe the world determines the way we perceive the world!

That’s actually very powerful stuff. It used to be thought that language developed as a way to describe experience, i.e. it’s a one-way process, that the way we describe the world reveals how we perceive it, and to some extent that’s true. But the whole truth is that description and perception actually form a loop – i.e. that the way we talk about our world feeds back and reinforces our perceptions of our world in the light of how we talk about it. In the case of ‘blue’, not having a word for ‘blue’ makes distinguishing between blue and green trickier or impossible.

It seems strange, doesn’t it, not to be able to see ‘blue’ when it’s staring you in the face, simply because your language or experience up to that point doesn’t include separating ‘blue’ from ‘green’.

So the next question that sprang to my mind was, “Does that mean our perceptions are set by our language – that they can’t change?”

Fortunately, research has also shown that when we change how we describe our world, our perception of it changes too!

Young children who’ve developed some language skills but not learned their colour names yet perform the same as the Himba when trying to discriminate between coloured squares – they find it difficult too. However, when they learn the colour names their ability to discriminate between colours jumps. The same happens with adults, even if the terms used to discriminate are just made-up words. It’s as if creating a finer set of distinctions or a wiser way of categorising the world really does opens up a whole new set of experiences.

So, I wondered, how often do we miss out on something that’s actually right there in front of us, staring us in the face, shouting at us, jumping up and down for our attention, simply because we don’t have the capacity to notice it for what it actually is, to perceive it as separate from the other stuff that’s going on?

If you lived in a culture that didn’t have stools for example, how would you differentiate a stool from a small table? Or you’d never had the difference between a crow and a raven explained to you, they’re all just big black birds aren’t they?

These might sound like trivial examples, so what about this: imagine you’d grown up in a home where no matter how well you succeeded, it was only the mistakes you made that were pointed out – where a 95% mark on an exam was labelled as “5% less than what you could have got!” – how would you know what ‘success’ was if even your most brilliant efforts were labelled as failure?

How about these examples too:

  • You can’t grasp the opportunity that a job promotion represents because you’ve already put in the category of ‘too much responsibility’?
  • You can’t understand the sense in saving because that’s just ‘stopping me enjoying my money now’?
  • You can’t see when someone is genuinely interested in you romantically because you’ve labelled all flirting as ‘they’re just after sex’?
  • You can’t see the benefits of a healthier lifestyle because you’ve already categorised it as ‘too much like hard work’ or ‘it’s just about denying me the things I want’?

Although it might not seem like it, these are the results of exactly the same kind of ‘lumping things together’ as the colour problem.

But there’s hope in every case here because when we start talking about these situations differently and develop ways to describe the things we can’t grasp or understand yet, gradually we change the way we perceive things.

And we’ll talk about how we do that next time!

Oh, I almost forgot – what colour is the sky? Take a proper look, don’t just say “It’s blue”…

Until then,


* There have been various theories to explain this, ranging from erroneous “The entire race was colour blind” to a plausible “Blue isn’t a colour that occurs often in nature, so why have a name for it?”

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