By DIRK OLIN
are red; violets are blue. But if we called a violet red, what color
would it be? This is not a rhetorical question. How we label things can
affect how we perceive them. Naming can impose meaning. And though
science and anthropology have provided significant support for the
proposition that color perception is basically identical across
societies, recent studies have found evidence that we also see our
rainbows through cultural lenses.
Theories about color were developed at least as far back as the
time of Socrates, in the fifth century B.C. But Aristotle's notion of
seven basic colors -- with primary hues, related to the four elements
-- held sway through the Renaissance. No enduring paradigms for the
organization of color emerged until Sir Isaac Newton, building on the
laws of refraction discovered by Willebrord Snell and Rene Descartes in
the early 17th century, shone light through a prism and revealed the
spectrum. This was not a purely scientific result, however, since
Newton sorted out seven major colors to ''harmonize'' his categories
with the (then known) seven planets and the seven notes of the diatonic
scale. In the 1720's J.C. Le Blon's treatise on color revealed how
mixtures could create secondary colors.
findings in recent years have demonstrated, however, color is in the
mind as well as the wavelength. Yes, physical objects have intrinsic
properties, and their absorption and reflection of particular
wavelengths have an existence independent of the observer. But color is
a neural response triggered in our eyes, a biochemical reaction
processed in our photoreceptors and a psychological phenomenon
occurring in our brains. Categorizing colors is also affected by
culture and by our very acquisition of language.
The world clearly has many shades of color meaning. Literary
Welsh has no words that correspond with green, blue, gray or brown in
English, but it uses others that English speakers don't (including one
that covers part of green, part of gray and the whole of our blue).
Hungarian has two words for what we call red; Navajo, a single word for
blue and green but two words for black. Ancient Greek's emphases on
variables like luminosity (as opposed to just hue) led some scholars to
wonder seriously whether the culture at large was colorblind.
In a series of classic studies conducted during the late
1960's, Eleanor Rosch, now with the University of California at
Berkeley, compared color discrimination by Americans with that of the
Dani people of Indonesia. English speakers typically use 11 separate
''elemental'' color words (including black, white and gray), whereas
the Dani use only two. Rosch tested the color memory of the two groups'
members -- first showing them a color, then (after a short delay)
asking them to find it in a separate group of similar colors. Despite
the groups' big difference in nomenclature, she found that they were
perceiving colors in the same way. Rosch's findings were seized upon by
advocates of universality, who said terminology doesn't affect
cognition: color transcends culture.
But recent studies conducted by Debi Roberson, Ian Davies and
Jules Davidoff (at the universities of Essex, Surrey and London)
suggest otherwise. They examined the hunter-gatherer Berinmo tribe of
Papua, New Guinea, a people with five basic color terms who don't
distinguish blue from green. (They do, however, have a distinction for
shades of green -- called nol and wor -- that are not shared by
Westerners.) In essence, they found that the Berinmo handled their
nol-wor differences better than their blue v. green (while it was vice
versa for English speakers). After practice, both groups were able to
improve their discernment of the distinction that they previously
hadn't shared with their counterparts. ''These results,'' Davidoff and
his colleagues contended, ''indicate that categorical perception
occurs, but only for speakers of the language that marks the
categorical distinction, which is consistent with the linguistic
relativity hypothesis.'' (The relativity of color naming is just one
manifestation of this broader concept, for which the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a formula: ''large differences in
language lead to large differences in thought.'')
According to Paul Kay, an emeritus professor of linguistics at
the University of California at Berkeley, the relativists have simply
overstated their claim. He concedes that naming can affect memory of
colors. But in findings presented in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences in July 2003, Kay reported conducting statistical
tests on color-naming data from more than 100 languages in both
industrial and nonindustrialized societies and concluded that ''strong
universal tendencies in color naming exist across both.''
Hue and Cry
Dueling theories of universality and relativity are not likely
to disappear any time soon. But there may be some room for a, well,
gray area. Roberson, in a paper soon to be published in the Journal of
Cross-Cultural Research, suggests that ''no language has ever been
reported to have a category that includes two areas of color space
(e.g., yellow and blue) but excludes an area in between them (green).''
Yet when asked to square that with her relativism, she expands:
''Although the physiological basis of color vision is the same for all
humans (and some primates) with normal color vision, higher order
processing and categorization differ between cultures.''
In a recent presentation to the Psychonomic Society, Roberson
and her colleagues compared color-category acquisition in
English-speaking children and seminomadic Himba children in Southwest
Africa. Her evidence suggests the learning of labels may tune the
perceptual system to become more sensitive to some distinctions than
Objectivity and subjectivity can coexist here. Color can be
understood both scientifically and artistically. It is experienced as a
phenomenon, but it is also learned, like a language. A rose by any
other name might smell as sweet, but one called by any other color
might look a bit different.
A Spectrum of Meanings
From the introduction to ''Colour: Art & Science''
(Cambridge University Press, 1995, reprinted in 1999), edited by Trevor
Lamb and Janine Bourriau.
''Although the idea of 'colour' may seem a simple concept, it
conjures up very different ideas for each of us. To the physicist,
colour is determined by the wavelength of light. To the physiologist
and psychologist, our perception of colour involves neural responses in
the eye and the brain, and is subject to the limitations of our nervous
system. To the naturalist, colour is not only a thing of beauty but
also a determinant of survival in nature. To the social historian and
linguist, our understanding and interpretation of colour are
inextricably linked to our own culture. To the art historian, the
development of colour in painting can be traced both in artistic and
technological terms. And for the painter, colour provides a means of
expressing feelings and the intangible, making possible the creation of
a work of art. . . . In the field of colour, the arts and the sciences
now travel in unison, and together they provide a rich and
comprehensive understanding of the subject.''
Dirk Olin is national editor of The American Lawyer.