Does Color Exist Without Language?

RainbowNo, this is not a post about #TheDress, but if you would have asked someone who lived a thousand years ago, they would have been firmly in the white and gold camp because blue didn’t exist yet. Why, you say? Because we had no word for it.

A recent article by Business Insider explored the work of William Gladstone and Lazarus Geiger. Gladstone’s wondered why Homer described sea as “wine dark” in the Odyssey rather than just plain “blue,” and went on to discover that there was no reference to the color blue in any ancient Greek text. Geiger followed up on his work and discovered that this phenomenon was not unique to the Greeks:

“[Geiger] studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again… but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs… and that is that the sky is blue.

Geiger carefully traced the emergence of color words in various languages and realized blue was the last color to appear in nearly every language he studied, except for the ancient Egyptians who “as it happens… were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.”

But before we start feeling superior about our advanced visual color pallets. Look at the chart below:

Green color wheel

Which square is a different color than all the rest? If you’re like me, they all look the same. But the Himba of Namibia–whose language has more words for green than English does–could easily tell you that the block in the 2pm position is the clear outlier. Though interestingly, their language does not distinguish between green and blue, so they have a much harder time identifying a blue square in a similar exercise.

Probably the most mind-blowing way to interpret all of this is that colors, at least how we understand them, don’t actually exist, at least in any permanent, natural sense. Color is just how the human eye has evolved to interpret the light bouncing off various surfaces, surfaces that don’t have an objective “color” as humans understand it. So really, if a tree falls in the forest, and no human is there to look at it, in a sense, it would be correct to say that it doesn’t have a color.

So it seems, if I may make a bold statement: Colors don’t exist without the human eye, the human eye doesn’t function without the brain’s interpretations, and the brain’s interpretations are facilitated by language.

That’s right folks – language is color. As Business Insider reports,“Before blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it. But it seems they didn’t know they were seeing it. If you see something yet can’t see it, does it exist? Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have…”

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1 thought on “Does Color Exist Without Language?”

  1. First thing that crossed my mind is: “If a tree falls in a forest… ”

    I read the article you mention yesterday and found it interesting. Good thoughts.

    Sent from my iPad


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