Blue green and how the world is seen
I grew up on the south coast of England, I now live in Australia by the sea and by a river, both are constantly bright and mixing varieties of green with varieties of blue – these colours have become important to me. In many languages, the colours of blue and green in English are expressed using a single word (colexified). After all, there’s no clear border between a 475 nanometer light wave (blue) and a 510 nanometer one (green). I have argued with many people over the years that a Sydney newspaper’s entertainment section on a Friday was blue, not green.
The ancient Egyptian word ‘wadjet’ covered a range from blue through blue-green to green. It was also the name of a goddess, a cobra called ‘the green one, and the word used for blue in faience ceramics. In the Lakota Sioux language, the word tȟó is used for both blue and green. Mayan languages also use single terms, as does Welsh, Korean, Tibetan, Yoruba and Vietnamese. A Vietnamese speaker may distinguish the colours through reference, saying ‘blue like the sky’ (xanh da trời) or ‘blue like the leaves’ (xanh lá cây).[i] There are still no agreed explanation for the nature of our colour perception.
Does language affect how we see the world?
Tritanomaly occurs when short wavelength cones of the eye are present but dysfunctional. If you have tritanomaly, blue and green will look alike (as will red and yellow). Free of this deficit one could ask, ‘Could you and I be walking around the same world speaking and behaving identically, even though I see the sky as blue and the earth as green, whereas you see the sky as green and the earth as blue? . . . There is no way to know (because of the inverted-spectrum conjecture, for example) that the qualitative sensory experience in which our words are grounded is a shared experience — or even that anyone other than oneself has any qualitative experience at all, rather than merely going mindlessly through the behavioral motions.’[ii]
Aristotle founded logic with universalist claims and presumed everyone sees the world the same way. Wilhelm von Humboldt, ‘Minister of Worship and Public Instruction’ was a Renaissance man and the founder of linguistics as an organized discipline. He wrote, ‘Each language sets certain limits to the spirit of those who speak it; it assumes a direction and, by doing so, excludes many others.’[iii] He established the first Chair of Linguistics at the University of Berlin in 1822.
Edward Sapir, from his study of American Indian languages, suggested language predisposes us to see the world ‘which undermines the possibility of man’s access to the real world.’[iv] Since then, the Whorf – Sapir thesis has been denigrated, except by constructivists.[v] The strong hypothesis is: ‘The structure of anyone’s native language strongly influences or fully determines the worldview he will acquire as he learns the language.’ [vi] Sapir and Whorf (his student) were accused of determinist thinking, despite the fact that Sapir uses terms like ‘predispose.’[vii] Geoffrey Pullum’s ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’ ended popular misconceptions of Whorf (though Sapir initially claimed only four Inuit roots for words concerning snow [viii]), and criticism has focused on a lack of evidence.[ix] John Lucy and Dan Slobin resurrected Whorfian thought in the early 1990s by providing experimental support.[x] Dan Slobin experimented cross-culturally using a picture of a boy in a tree and a dog to look for grammatical categories present in which languages. He concluded, ‘Each [language] is a subjective orientation to the world of human experience, and this orientation affects the ways in which we think while we are speaking.’[xi]
‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages . . . We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.’ Benjamin Whorf[xii]
Language definitely helps us organise the sensation of colour and does transform our experience of them. English has eleven words for basic colours (red, blue, green, yellow, orange, black, purple, white, brown, pink, and grey). Himba has five that cover broader spectrums. In a Horizon BBC documentary, Himba people quickly and easily pick out a green square as different to the other, ‘because the two kinds of green here are labelled with two different Himba words, so they see these colours as unrelated.’ [xiii]
Understanding that there is some relativity should help us realise that or stance on the world has walls that are not so strong, discrete and set, but flexible, even permeable.
Niels Bohr pointed out the way in which language pressures us to employ concepts entirely inappropriate for the quantum world. David Bohm took this further, undertaking a language thought experiment, (the ‘Rheomode’) to reveal the fragmented nature of thought.[xiv] Like Whorf, Bohm looked at Native American languages and thought their strongly verb-based languages and ‘process-based vision of the world’ supported his hypothesis.[xv]
Cyanobacteria evolved as the first photosynthetic organisms over 2.5 billion years ago, producing an oxygen-rich atmosphere necessary for the evolution of the dazzling diversity of life forms on Earth today. Also known as blue-green algae, they form strings of cells that can move, and break away from their colonies to form new ones. These microscopic organisms occur in all aquatic habitats – fresh, brackish and marine, sometimes forming giant blue-green blooms. They also occur in terrestrial habitats, living within lichens, plants and animals.
Lichens are fungi mostly of the genus Ascomycota) in a symbiotic relationship with algae, single-celled organisms such as green or blue-green algae. Although the relationship is complex, the algae’s essential role is to share carbon with the fungi, which in turn scrapes nutrients from the surface it’s attached to and provides the algae with somewhere to live.[xvi]
Light does work, colours do change
Sandro Boticelli’s ‘The Mystical Nativity’ shows angels floating in flowing dresses above the manger and small, dark, horned furry devils scurrying down clefts in the earth. It was painted in 1500 and depicts the end of the world (National Gallery, London). Angelo Bronzino’s ‘Noli me tangere’, painted half a century later, depicts Christ in a garden with Mary Magdalene (The Louvre). These are just two examples of Renaissance paintings that used verdigris, a bluish green, luminous pigment with a copper base.
The pigment was made by soaking copper in vinegar and waiting for a month for the chemical reaction which produced blue-green copper acetate on the surface. This was then mixed with boiled linseed oil for a wonderful new pigment (which is toxic and unstable). Over time the green has become an autumnal brown due to reaction with oxygen.[xvii]
And of course, the Garden
[i] Brian Oaster, ‘Did You Know Your Language Changes How You See Color?’ https://www.daytranslations.com/blog/language-changes-color/ 19 May, 2017.
[ii] Stevan Harnad, ‘The Origin of Words: A Psychophysical Hypothesis’, in Velichkovsky B & Rumbaugh, D. Eds., Communicating Meaning: Evolution and Development of Language, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996.
[iii] Danny K. B. Alford, ‘Part II: A Hidden Cycle in the History of Linguistics’, Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man, Volume IV, No. 1 and 2. 1980. http://www.sunflower.com/~dewatson/dma-2.htm
[iv] Edward Sapir wrote, ‘We see and here and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. Philosophically, this is very radical, it undermines the possibility of man’s access to the real world. (1929) quoted in R.D. Gross, Psychology: the science of mind and behaviour, Hodder & Staughton, London, 1992, p361. He often talked of social reality, ‘No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.’ Sapir, 1949, p162. See T. Hawkes on Sapir’s interest in indigenous languages, Structuralism and Semiotics, U of California P, Berkeley, 1977, p29-31. Whorf claims language ‘is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience.’ Benjamin Whorf, Language, thought, and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Ed., J.B. Carroll. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956, p55. Wittgenstein had no interest in individual languages and he is not focussed on the materiality of language, being anti-formalist. ‘Wittgenstein is a poet of nearly pure cognition. He is not a poet of the German language or the English language; he is a poet of thinking through language.’ Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, U of Chicago P, 1996, p161.
[v] Danny Alford provides good evidence that ‘Whorf’s own statements decisively refute the Whorf Hypothesis, which was generated only later in the critical writings.’ Danny Alford, ‘Part I: Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis’, Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man, VolIV:1 & 2, 1980, http://www.enformy.com/dma-dwh.htm [DL 26.2.2001]
[vi] Roger Brown, ‘Reference: In Memorial Tribute to Eric Lenneberg’ in Cognition 4:125-153, 1976, p158.
[vii] ‘Still other psychologists . . . point out that there is a circularity in the arguments for linguistic relativity: ‘the language determined the outlook which determined the verbal behaviour – thus the circularity of evidence.’ Insup Taylor discussing Whorf in Introduction to Psycholinguistics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1976, p304.
[viii] According to Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, Penguin, 1994, p64-65. In Canada a distinction is made between the qali (the snow over the trees), the pukak (the compact snowy and iced cloak that is covering the soil), the api (the soft snow that is on the top of the pukak. Magrini, 1982, p30).
[ix] E.g., lack of support for his Hopi future concepts. Whorf thought the Hopi aspect-contrast, obligatory on verb forms, practically forces the Hopi to notice and observe vibratory phenomena, furthermore encouraging them to find names for, and to classify such phenomena,
[x] Subjects were Yucatec Mayans, Mexico. In English objects with a well-defined shape have units built into the word, we may say multiple ‘chairs’ because same shaped units, but sugar is ‘sugar’, one lump or two. Mayan speakers do not refer to objects in plural form, shape and unit are less ingrained into speech and more what objects are made of (a ‘candle’ in English is a ‘long, thin wax’ to Mayans). Lucy presented subjects with an object and asked them to decide which of two other objects was more similar – one with the same shape but made of a different material or vice versa. The groups’ preferences split along linguistic lines – English for shape, Mayans material. It then turned out that Mayan children shared the English predilection for shape until age seven or so, but turned toward material by age nine after acquiring language, suggesting that their thought patterns diverged as they acclimated to their way of speaking. Also Lera Boroditsky of MIT studied Mandarin-English bilinguals’ thinking about time. See J.R. Minkel, ‘A Way with Words: Do languages help mould the way we think? A controversial idea from the 1930s is getting a second look.’ http://www.scientificamerican.com/explorations/2002/032502language/. [DL 15.4.2003] A critic, Lila Gleitman argues we devise language to express the thoughts we have about our culture, geography, ‘People develop language that’s useful given those circumstances. That’s why you always find a tight relationship between language and thought.’ J.R. Minkel, ibid.
[xi] Dan Slobin, ‘From ‘Thought and Language’ to ‘Thinking and Speaking’.’ in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Eds., John Gumperz & Stephen Levinson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996, p91.
[xii] ‘The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds . . . The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.’ Whorf, quoted in Stephen Pinker, The Language Instinct, Penguin, 1994, p59-60. Steven Pinker attacks Whorf in Chapter 3, and elsewhere stated, ‘The discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief.’ Quoted John Gumperz, & Stephen Levinson, ‘Introduction to Part I. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, Cambridge UP, 1996, p23.
[xiii] Brian Oaster 2017. A study by Debi Roberson of the University of Essex, compared English children learning their colours with children of the Himba tribe of northern Namibia. ‘On the other hand, the Himba had a difficult time picking out a cyan square, which a westerner can do quickly and easily. That’s because the Himba use the same word for both of these hues.’
[xiv] The ‘new’ language consisted only of verbs in recognition of the transcendental, transformational and flowing nature of the world. Bohm thought the subject-verb-object structure of modern language implies a Cartesian world of actions arising in a separate entity (the subject) acting upon an object. We presuppose this state of affairs, he argues, to such an extent that it leads, ‘in the whole of life to a function of thought tending to divide things into separate entities, such entities being conceived of as essentially fixed and static in their nature. When this view is carried to its limit, one arrives at the prevailing scientific world view, in which everything is regarded as ultimately constituted out of a set of basic particles of fixed nature.’ David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, p29. He became friends with Krishnamurti (and followed his teachings until it emerged that while advocated celibacy, he had a mistress who had several abortions). He was a friend of the Dalai Lama, and sought alternative interpretations of quantum physics, rejecting the centrality of chance, and instead searching for subtler forces acting from hidden levels of reality, to explain the weird quantum world.
[xv] See discussion by David Pratt, ‘David Bohm and the Implicate Order’, Sunrise, February-March’, 1993.
[xvi] Nic Fleming, ‘Which organism has had the biggest impact on the planet?’ BBC Earth, 10 February, 2015.
[xvii] Sabrina Imbler, ‘Why Renaissance Paintings Arent as Green as They Used to Be’, 10 Oct, 2019, https://www.atlasobscura.com/