This segment of an episode of Horizon, called "Do You See What I See?"
shows how language has an effect on how people see color, especially when comparing colors.
The Himba of northern Namibia categorize colors differently than English speakers. From an American Psychological Association article called "Hues and Views" :
In short, the range of stimuli that for Himba speakers comes to be categorized as "serandu" would be categorized in English as red, orange or pink. As another example, Himba children come to use one word, "zoozu," to embrace a variety of dark colors that English speakers would call dark blue, dark green, dark brown, dark purple, dark red or black.
Roberson and her colleagues explain that different languages have differing numbers of "basic color terms." English has 11 such terms, the same as in many of the world's major languages, and Himba has five, each of which covers a broader range of colors.
In a test, Himba were able to very quickly point out the standout color below:
It took me a long time to figure out which color was different (it complicates matters that the TV program pointed to the wrong square!). I used the eyedropper tool in Adobe Illustrator to confirm which square had the different color. Click here to see the RGB value for each square.
The Himba had a much harder time pointing out the square that English speakers would categorize as a shade of blue:
These findings are presented as if they’re new, but they’re based on the pioneering work of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin in 1969.
One of the challenges for me in getting used to the Yurmby color wheel is learning to recognize cyan and magenta as basic color terms, distinct from blue, green, and red.
Because I didn’t grow up with the terms “cyan” and “magenta,” it has taken me a few years to remap my brain, but now I routinely recognize cyan and magenta colors around me according to their own terms.
It would have been much easier if I had learned those color terms in kindergarten, but that would be like changing America to the metric system.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects