White, black, red, yellow, green. Sometimes we have been told that dogs see in black and white, that cows see us larger, that some animals see through an ultraviolet effect. But perhaps we have never wondered if, among ourselves human beings, we see different colors based on the context to which we belong. In fact, there are populations such as the Dani, in Papua New Guinea, which have only two names for colors (mili for all light colors, mola for all dark colors), which show that they take into account more brightness than hue, in the name colors. Many other languages only have three, four, or five names for colors. The Warlpiri language, spoken by the aborigines of a territory in northern Australia, doesn’t even have a way to ask “What color is it?”; its speakers can ask at most “How does it look?”. It becomes difficult to accept with indisputable certainty that all human beings have the same Western concept of “color” as ours.
But does that mean that we have different ways of perceiving colors? If a language lacks a term for a color, does it also perceive it differently? For a long time, researchers thought that perhaps our perceptions of colors might be different. Yet in the late 1970s, an experiment that was supposed to support relativism, actually revealed that there are stages in the development of terms for colors that can be considered in some way universal. Making a study of more than a hundred languages, linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay discovered that there is a necessity relationship between the number of terms for the developed colors and the corresponding area of the color spectrum.
To put it in simpler words, if a language has three names for colors, then they will definitely be “white”, “black”, and “red”. If it has four, they will be “white”, “black”, “red” and one between “yellow” and “green”. And so on, going so far as to show the path of insertion of all the “basic” terms of colors, up to the languages that have developed their vocabulary in a more advanced way. Clearly a language that has as terms for the colors “white”, “black”, and “red”, will also define with these three terms all the various shades of color to which we would give a different name, thus also making them different from ours the concepts of “white”, “black”, and “red” themselves.
The categorization of colors could therefore somehow have a universal basis, and researchers today tend to agree that the perception of colors is the same for all human beings.
However, the attention we pay to certain aspects of reality, and our ability to see more pronounced differences between one tone and another, may differ from context to context. After all, we belong to a society in which colors are a very relevant aspect in our daily life. We use our Western background to define what color is, and we are not even sure that the word “color” exists in languages spoken by human beings who live very different realities from ours. In our society we often encounter objects that are exactly the same, but differ only in terms of color. We think of cars, clothes, walls, sheets, pens. Every day we feel defined by our choices also based on the colors we choose. We go into a shop and buy a red T-shirt that, identical but in the gray version, we would never have bought because it doesn’t suit us. Not to mention that colors are also associated with emotions, red reminds us of love and passion, pink and blue are the bows that we display when girls or boys are born, green on a traffic light means “go “.
We are increasingly surrounded by colors, and this is probably due to advances in the use of materials and graphics, which literally allow us to create new shades of color that in nature would not stand out so clearly. We can create and mix colors using a simple program on our computer. Perhaps this is why our vocabulary is more refined, and perhaps also our ability to distinguish colors themselves.
It is interesting that, however, at the same time, we are much inferior to other languages (such as the language of the Jahai population of Malaysia) in our vocabulary relating to smells and our olfactory abilities. It has been shown that when it comes to making us recognize smells or giving “basic” names to smells, we are really scarce. “It tastes of lemon, it tastes of rose, it is sweet, it is sour, it tastes like bread”. There is no “red”, “green”, “yellow” of smells. At least for us. For the Jahai language, yes.
Some will wonder what good it can be to talk about these things. The importance perhaps lies in the fact that we often forget that there can be many ways of living as human beings. That not only our mentalities and our good manners can be different, not only our ideals, our ideas of justice and freedom. Our very way of relating to our senses can be different. It can be much more relevant for a company to be able to distinguish smells rather than colors. Realizing that we are all human beings alike and yet in such different ways could help us understand that our categories of thought are relative.
But not in the sense in which we Westerners often speak of relativity. A certain hypocrisy often makes us say that yes, our categories of thought are different, but in diversity one can find better categories. And which happens to be usually ours, because our way of seeing the world is more advanced. What we don’t realize is that we tell ourselves.
Relativity means the relativity of our own categories, a peculiar way of looking at the world, among many different ways. Relativity of the categories of a society that knows how to distinguish colors, but not smells. Of a society that understands many things about reality, but who knows how many others it does not understand.
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