Thursday, July 05, 2012

Complexity of Color



Describing colors seems like a straightforward concept, regardless of the culture or language. In my mind, I imagine a process of naming a color in English and then finding the appropriate translation in the target language. For example, in Spanish, the color blue is azul and the color green is verde. It seems simple enough, but the reality is far more complex, especially when we begin to compare the English language with indigenous languages.

A recent BBC documentary examines the difference in color perception across cultures, and what they discovered is not as simple as one might think.

Researchers visited the Himba people of northern Namibia and asked them to describe the color of various natural objects. Much to my surprise, they said the sky was black and the water was white. But these are not simply different color names; the researchers found that the Himba have totally different categories of color. They also found that the way people categorize color even affects their ability to perceive differences between them. For example, the Himba have words to describe multiple shades of green, and as a result, they were able to perceive these differences much faster than Europeans. In contrast, the Himba do not have separate words to describe blue and green. For them, these two colors fall within the same category, and so the Himba were less able to tell them apart.

This video inspired me to take a closer look at the phenomenon of naming color.

I found this article that addressed the naming of colors within traditional Japanese society. Like the Himba, the Japanese did not historically have separate words for blue and green. Before the year 1,000 AD, they only had one word: ao (blue). In time, the language changed to allow for a greenish tint of blue, which they called midori; however, this did not become a separate color until the 20th century. Ironically, Crayola crayons and teaching manuals essentially insisted upon separating ao from midori, and as a result, a new category was born.

Vestiges of the past survive. According to the article, the Japanese still describe vegetables as blue. They also say that traffic lights are blue, not green.

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The BBC video and the Crayola article got me to thinking about the categorization of colors within the Spokane Salish language. The naming of color in Salish has always been problematic for me because the colors do not align well with English. To be honest, I was beginning to think that someone simply forgot to translate all the colors. In the Spokane language, I have never found a name for orange. To complicate matters even more, a single word (qʷin) is sometimes used to describe both green and purple. Thankfully, these articles have restored some sanity to my mind and have given me a different perspective for understanding my own language.

This all reminded me an event that happened several months ago when I had the opportunity to hear a Spokane tribal elder give thanks for the green grass of spring. However, when he offered the same prayer in Salish, he called the grass: sqʷaʔyoleʔxʷ. Even then, this caught my attention because the root word was qʷay, which means blue!

A simple search of the Spokane dictionary revealed that other "green" things were once described as blue by the historical Spokane people. Some examples:

hi qʷay - it is blue (also applied to spinach).
čqʷaʔyačst - a tree turns blue in spring.
sqʷaʔyoleʔxʷ - the blue grass of spring.
sqʷayc'eʔ - a blue or green blanket.
čqʷqʷay'c'eʔ - a watermelon (a little bit blue on the outside).

As I have studied Salish, I have struggled to understand the language categories of my ancestors. Likewise, I have watched others experience the same struggle. Now I realize that our mental categories have literally been altered by the dominant culture. Our minds have been changed, and if we believe the BBC documentary, our very ability to perceive color is different than it was 100 years ago. And now that we have separated colors based upon a European model, can we ever go back to seeing the world like the elders before us?

These articles also highlight the need to abandon any expectation of line-for-line translations between English and Salish. They simply are not possible. When we translate ideas between the two languages, we are really only offering approximations. In some cases, the concepts are so different, that we really cannot describe them in the other language. This presents a vastly more complex understanding of language that makes translation much more difficult, but also exciting and rich.

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