It's not easy seeing green

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The whole dress that melted the internet thing has brought back a curious example of semi-demi-science about a Namibian tribe that can't distinguish green and blue, but does differentiate kinds of green that look just the same to us Westerners. This story has been floating around the internets for several years, in places like the BBC and the New York Times and BoingBoing and RadioLab, and it presents an impressive-seeming demonstration of the power of language to shape our perception of the world.  But on closer inspection, the evidence seems to melt away, and the impressive experience seems to be wildly over-interpreted or even completely invented.

I caught the resurrection of this idea in Kevin Loria's article "No one could see the color blue until modern times", Business Insider 2/27/2015, which references a RadioLab episode on Colors that featured those remarkable Namibians. Loria uses them to focus on that always-popular question "do you really see something if you don't have a word for it?"

[Update — apparently the experiment under discussion never actually existed, but was concocted for illustrative purposes by the authors of a BBC documentary: see "Himba color perception", 3/17/2015. And that's why the stimuli don't seem to correspond to the claims made about them — they're essentially fraudulent.]

Here's the relevant segment of Loria's piece:

A researcher named Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to investigate this, where he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe, which speaks a language that has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green.

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.

But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English.  When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one.

Can you?

For most of us, that's harder.

No kidding.

Davidoff says that without a word for a color, without a way of identifying it as different, it is much harder for us to notice what is unique about it — even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks it in the same way.

The images in Loria's article are apparently screenshots from a segment of a 2011 BBC documentary "Do you see what I see?". The relevant segment is available via Vidipedia and BoreMe, and the section about the Himba of Namibia starts about 3:00 of the BoreMe version.

The striking story about the Himba's color perception has been widely disseminated — aside from the RadioLab episode, there's Mark Frauenfelder, "How language affects color perception", BoingBoing 8/12/2011; Maud Newton, "It's not easy seeing green", NYT 9/4/2012; and Dustin Stevenson, "The last color term", 4/25/2013; and so on.

Most of the articles have the same pair of examples that Loria shows — a circle of 12 green squares, one of which is a slightly different green from the others, and similar circle with 11 green squares and one blue square. Unfortunately, like Loria, most of the others show the blue-and-green display only as a photo of a CRT display taken over the shoulder of a Himba subject doing the task.

Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing was interested enough to use an image-processing program to calculate the RGB values of the squares in the varieties-of-green display:


I get slightly different values from Loria's image: [85 168 0] for the oddball green square, and [72 166 8] for various of the other green squares. (I loaded the image into Gimp via "Copy Image" and "Create>>From Clipboard", and used the eyedropper tool to measure RGB values. In fact the values vary slightly for different parts of different squares.) For the "white" background (which is necessary for turning RGB values into CIELUV values) I get [242 242 242]. Frauenfelder doesn't specific the value of the "white" background in his image, but I get [244 244 246] from it.

From the stimulus seen over the shoulder of the Himba subject, I get [23 88 110] for the blue-looking square, and [27 74 54] (plus or minus a bit) for the green-looking ones, with "white" at [97 108 102].  This is very unsatisfactory — but it's what they give us.

So I implemented the algorithms to convert from RGB to CIEXYZ and then to CIELUV (given e.g. here), because euclidean distance in L*u*v* space is said to be roughly equal to psychophysical distance. My implementation is here.

The result for the kinds-of-green display, using my measurements:

green1a = [85 168 0];
green1b = [72 166 8];
white1 = [242 242 242];
norm(rgb2luv(green1a, white1) - rgb2luv(green1b, white1))
ans = 8.4526

And using Frauenfelder's measurements:

green1a = [97 192 4];
green1b = [80 186 15];
white1 = [244 244 246];
norm(rgb2luv(green1a, white1) - rgb2luv(green1b, white1))
ans = 10.606

And from the over-the-shoulder shot (as found in Loria's screenshot):

blue2 = [23 88 110];
green2 = [27 74 54];
white2 = [97 108 102];
norm(rgb2luv(blue2,white2) - rgb2luv(green2,white2))
ans = 46.446

So maybe the CIELUV space is highly ethnocentric. Or maybe the documentary's assertion about the perception of these stimuli is just wrong — the blue and the green are 4-6 times farther apart, in psychophysical terms, than the different kinds of green are.

Or maybe the over-the-shoulder shot somehow exaggerates the amount of blue-green contrast (though I would expect the opposite). So I went looking for a better version of the blue-vs.-green stimulus. One of the pages that I cited (Dustin Stevenson, "The last color term", 4/25/2013) gives a more comparable-looking blue-vs.-green display (i.e. not an over-the-shoulder photo):


The RGB values from this image, with the associated CIELUV distance, are:

blue2 = [0 0 255];
green2 = [58 185 5];
white2 = [242 242 244];
norm(rgb2luv(blue2,white2) - rgb2luv(green2,white2))
ans = 234.54;

But the blue value of [0 0 255] in this display is obviously either an innocent but wildly mistaken invention by Mr. Davidson, or else a complete fraud — this version is even less satisfactory than the over-the-shoulder image. It suggests that the blue-green difference is 20-30 times more salient, in purely psychophysical terms, than the green-green difference is.

So I went looking for a publication with a clear description of the stimuli, as well as a description of the experiment and the results. And I struck out, utterly and completely.

Looking for Himba color in Google Scholar, I find things like Rachel Adelson, "Hues and views: A cross-cultural study reveals how language shapes color perception", American Psychological Association Monitor, 2/2005; Roberson et al., "Color categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis", Cognitive Psychology 2005; Goldstein et al., "Knowing color terms enhances recognition: Further evidence from English and Himba", Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2008 — but none of these describe an experiment anything like the one shown in the 2011 BBC documentary, and discussed in various places since then.

The documentary names Serge Caparos as the experimenter, and we see him and hear him running the experiment and discussing the results. But as far as I can tell, searching for Serge Caparos Himba color again leaves us without any publication that describes the experiment we're looking for.

So either

  1. The experiment was abandoned because it failed, or because serious design flaws turned up in the review process; or
  2. The experiment was abandoned because the author(s) went on to other things, or couldn't write it up for personal reasons; or
  3. The experiment has been published, but my search techniques were unable to find it.

Whatever the explanation, I submit that the BBC documentary (and the subsequent coverage) has given us a sensationalist interpretation of an undocumented experiment, presented as reliable science, without giving us any basis to trust that this interpretation is even close to true.

Unfortunately, this is all too typical of the BBC's approach to the popularization of science — see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section" for a inventory of examples as of a decade ago, and "Bible Science stories" for a theory about the source of this pathology.

It would be funny if it weren't so sad, or maybe vice versa.

If you'd like to learn more about color vision (at least in the whole-field case), and you know a little linear algebra and/or have access to Matlab or Octave, you may be interested in some Lecture Notes on the subject of early color vision, and perhaps even in this homework assignment.


  1. Levantine said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

    Not that it means people can't distinguish between the two colours, but it is interesting that numerous languages, particularly in their older forms, use the same umbrella term to describe both blue and green.

    The existence of the word and concept of "pink" (which is, after all, merely light red) has always intrigued me. Why does this hue have its own name in various languages, and why don't other light colours receive the same treatment?

    Oh, and the dress definitely looked blue and black to me.

  2. Levantine said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    Sorry, I meant "shade" rather than "hue" in reference to pink.

  3. Stephen said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

    Do you have versions of the images as PNG files? The JPEG artefacts probably make it harder.

  4. Callum said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Radiolab never fails in its shallowness. My interest immediately turned off when the programme description suggested that Homer used the phrase "wine-dark sea" because he had no word for "blue".

  5. Gene Anderson said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

    People can mostly see the differences between green and blue, but there is a cone type, or rather cone/brain hookup, that is specific for bluegreen. So it's easy to see them as shades of one color. Indeed most languages (but not the Germanic languages) do this, and lump green, blue, and usually gray under one color term: qing in Chinese, ya'ax in Maya, havasu in the river Yuman languages, etc. This does NOT mean people don't see them as different, or that they couldn't see "blue" (presumably they couldn't see green or gray either?). Often, specific terms for "green" and "blue" came in with the development of dyeing cloth–recently enough that many languages, including Chinese, simply use the word for the indigo plant (Chinese "lan"). This is somewhat similar to the English use of flower names as color terms, which is where "pink" comes from, as well as "violet," "mauve" (French for "mallow"), etc.
    Another bit of nonsense in the original article was the claim about Homer and the wine-dark sea. This bit is a model of sloppy scholarship. English writers of the Victorian age knew only the gray-blue Atlantic, and never bothered to look at the Mediterranean. It is much deeper, more intense blue than the North Atlantic (because it's warmer and less rich in life), and in sunrise and sunset light, reflecting the red in the sky, the Mediterranean turns exactly the color of the purplish-red wines you often find in Greece, as I have seen many times. Homer was being beautifully precise.

  6. Ewan said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    No time to think too hard about whether I could reproduce the materials with this, but this appears to be the paper they're referring to, which says:

    "The set consisted of hue levels 5 and 10 of ten equally spaced steps around the Munsell circle (Munsell dimension Hue R, YR, Y, YG, G, BG, B, PB, P, RP) each at eight lightness levels (Munsell dimension Value 9/, 8/, 7/, 6/, 5/, 4/, 3/, 2/)."

    I don't, however, see any "find the odd one out" task here the way it's made out in the video and its description. Admittedly I haven't read it thoroughly. I very much doubt they failed that task the way they're making out here.

    [(myl) Yes, I saw that. There are some color discrimination experiments, but nothing like the 12 squares with one oddball.]

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

    Buck Mulligan's famous color description of Dublin Bay as the "snotgreen sea" occurs in a passage where he is quoting bits of Greek to Stephen Dedalus and telling him he must read it in the original. But it's not as if he couldn't tell blue from green — indeed "sea blue" and "sea green" both have conventional, and non-synonymous meanings, at least in modern AmEng, because we realize that the sea appears to be different colors in different places and/or under different weather etc. conditions.

  8. Doctor Science said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

    When I'm doing website design, I've found that "That color is blue! I asked for green!" (or vice versa) is actually a common source of stress. Basically, no-one agrees whether colors close to Teal count as "blue" or green", or where the dividing line is.

    Add in the fact that displays are different, and that colors change as external lighting angle changes, and it's Fun Times For All.

    I was much less surprised than most about the Great Dress Question, because my husband is slightly red/green colorblind. So I'm used to knowing, for certain, that he & I don't have the same experience looking at colors. I also know that, even though he's aware that he's (partially) colorblind, every time I say that something is a color he can't see he gets affronted — as though colors are a conspiracy against him.

  9. maidhc said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

    Colors are defined by three values: hue, saturation and brightness. In English, color names depend largely on hue. But in other languages the color space may be divided differently. Irish has two different words for red, dearg and rua, one for more saturated color and one less. The word glas can mean green, blue or grey, without much saturation. A more saturated green is uaine.

    I once had a copy of an academic paper on this very topic, but I seem to have misplaced it.

    Saying that a particular language "doesn't have a word for blue" is a meaningless statement, since it is based on the unfounded assumption that every language would divide the color space in the same way. I might just as well say "English doesn't have a word for rua."

  10. Matthew McIrvin said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

    I always wondered why Joyce would even regard snot as green (isn't it yellow?) until I spent a couple of weeks breathing the air of 1980s London. I don't know whether it's strictly comparable to 1900s Dublin, but it at least made the description plausible.

  11. cameron said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    Designing an experiment of that kind that's based on use of computer monitors would be very difficult. How does one differentiate between "seeing a color" and "interpreting the approximation of a color implemented by a color video display system's additive color scheme".

    [(myl) People in the biz know how to calibrate displays of various kinds so that the tristimulus coordinates of a their displays of given inputs are known.]

    By the way, has anyone ever heard someone say "That's not purple, it's violet"?

  12. Rubrick said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

    I suggest someone design a proper study of this effect, and fund it via an IndigoGo campaign.

  13. Doctor Science said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 6:07 pm


    Yes, because "purple" and "violet" are different official HTML colors.

    I've also been part of a group sitting around helping a friend with her fashion-design-school homework, which involved coming up with the sort of color names you see in clothing catalogs: "eggplant" or "seafoam" — or like this shirt, which is said to come in "arugula" but only if the arugula you eat is very, very sad.

    [(myl) Or is serving in the military:


  14. Eric P Smith said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    Oddly, I have no difficulty in picking out the different green in the circle of green squares (BIGrue.png), even though I have a colour vision deficiency (deuteranomaly).

    Incidentally, the different green in BIGrue.png is the one at North-East. Mark Frauenfelder's chart shows the different green at North-West: somehow there has been a left-right reversal.

    [(myl) Indeed — across the various stories about this "experiment", the oddball colors turns up in a variety of different places.]

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

    Sorry, that should read BIGrue2.png

  16. Matt said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 9:16 pm

    the Mediterranean turns exactly the color of the purplish-red wines you often find in Greece, as I have seen many times. Homer was being beautifully precise.

    I can't remember the source, but somewhere I read an (apparently academic and serious) argument to the effect that Homer's color words are based on something other than hue (perhaps it was saturation?) as maidhc mentions above. Is there actually a scholarly consensus on whether Homer's color terminology reflects a fundamentally different organization of colors, or a fairly unremarkable (to English speakers, say) system that Anglophone scholarship only thought was weird because they were all writing in the miserable and grey north?

  17. JS said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

    According to here, "Dr. Jules Davidoff is Professor of Psychology in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths College"; the same page mostly concerns a 2005 presentation called "Commentary on Olafur Eliasson: Uncertainty of Colour Matching and Related Ideas." Davidoff's discussion of the Himba starts at 8:15ish; the key slides don't resemble the above, needless to say, while the key part of the talk (transcribed on the same page) begins:

    "This is a group of people in Namibia who were asked to do some color matching and similarity judgments for us. […] They are completely monolingual in their own language, which has a tremendous richness in certain types of terms, in cattle terms (I can’t talk about that now), but has a dramatic lack in color terms. They’ve only got five color terms. So all of the particular colors of the world, and this is an illustration which can go from white to black at the top, red to yellow, green, blue, purple, back to red again, if this was shown in terms of the whole colors of the spectrum, but they only have five terms. So they see the world as, perhaps differently than us, perhaps slightly plainer. So we looked at these young children, and we showed them a navy blue color at the top and we asked them to point to the same color again from another group of colors. And those colors included the correct color, but of course sometimes the children made mistakes. What I want to show was that the English children and the Himba children, these people are the Himba of Northwest Namibia, start out from the same place, they have this undefined color space in which, at the beginning of the testing, T1, they make errors in choosing the navy blue, sometimes they’ll choose the blue, sometimes they’ll choose the black, sometimes they’ll choose the purple […]"

  18. JS said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    Should have included the crux of the matter for those who don't click through:
    "…as the children got older, the most common error, both for English children and the Himba children, is the increase (that’s going up on the graph) of the purple mistakes. But, their language, the Himba language, has the same word for blue as for black. We, of course, have the same word for the navy blue as the blue on the left, only as the children get older, three or four, the English children only ever confuse the navy blue to the blue on the left, whereas the Himba children confuse the navy blue with the black."

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    As far as I can tell, the results Prof. Davidoff describes can also be explained by the hypothesis that the older children are remembering the word for the color they saw, not the color. If I'm wrong, I blame my deuteranomaly.

  20. Ken said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 11:43 pm and may be of interest.

  21. Chris C. said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 12:01 am

    I came here to point out what Eric already did. And I measured the colors with the eyedropper tool in just to make sure I wasn't going crazy.

  22. Scasc said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 3:11 am


    »The existence of the word and concept of "pink" (which is, after all, merely light red) has always intrigued me. Why does this hue have its own name in various languages, and why don't other light colours receive the same treatment?«

    Well, technically 'yellow' is "merely a light brown", or better, 'brown' is " merely a dark yellow"; still, English and at least most European languages had it (comparatively) "forever"…

    That doesn't puzzle you?

  23. Vince said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 5:20 am

    A quick bit of research (aka googling "caparos davidoff") suggest that the experiments on the Himba's colour perception were the different ones described in this article. Serge Caparos was associated with Professor Davidoff at Goldsmiths and has carried out other research with the Himba. Could it be that the "experiment" shown in the documentary is simply a demonstration of the effect for the purposes of television conducted by Professor Caparos who was in Namibia for his own research?

    [(myl) It's easy to find papers that Serge Caparos has written on the Himba, with Prof. Davidoff and without him, on color vision and on other things. But it seems impossible to find what the stimuli and the results really were, for the particular experiment which the BBC documentary in 2011 presented as striking evidence for the role of color names in color perception, and which has been so widely promoted since then for the same reason.

    The version of the stimuli presented in the documentary seem problematic, and the versions featured on the net are even more so. Combined with the fact that the experiment seems to have been abandoned without publication, this makes the BBC documentary seem lacking in intellectual honesty, at best.

    If you're right that the stimuli were never used in a real experiment, but were just concocted to make the documentary's point, then it becomes out-and-out fraud.]

  24. January First-of-May said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    > The existence of the word and concept of "pink" (which is, after all, merely light red) has always intrigued me.

    Just a few days ago, I saw a jacket that I couldn't call anything but light red. I knew that light red was supposed to be pink (or "rose", to use the cognate for the original Russian word), but the poor thing just wasn't pink. No way.

    On some googling, the term "light red" does kind of exist in that it does come up on the XKCD color survey (for about the correct color). It doesn't seem to come up much on online searches, however (and I'm not entirely sure what the proper name for the color is – from a cursory search "salmon" and "coral (red)" are both possibilities).

  25. Linda Seebach said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 9:16 am

    Actually, the question of whether teal is green or blue is so difficult that my left and right eyes disagree on it for one smalll slice of the spectrum. I have never understood how my brain could have come to that conclusion.

  26. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 10:09 am

    I wonder whether "having a word for it" applies to other sensory phenomena as well. I believe that only Japanese has a word (umami) for the meaty flavor of chemical glutamates like MSG.

  27. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 10:23 am

    Scasc, you're quite wrong. Brown is formed by mixing all three primary colours (red, yellow, and blue). Dark yellow is, well, dark yellow, and light brown is certainly not to be confused with yellow.

    You get pink by mixing white and red. Yet many of us (myself included) think of pink as its own colour rather than merely a shade of another. I suppose the same is true of grey in relation to black. Perhaps there's nothing much to it, but I do find it interesting that shades of other colours are generally thought of as such rather than ascribed the autonomy that pink appears to enjoy in many diverse languages (though Wikipedia tells me that Italians consider light blue to be its own colour).

  28. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    January First-of-May, where red ends and pink begins is, as you say, somewhat arbitrary, though somehow one "knows" when the line has been crossed. As for "light red", many of the results you get when searching for it in Google Image are rather orangey, with a definite admixture of yellow. The darker version of these salmon/coral hues is terracotta.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    Interesting factoid: I was thinking that the blue/green distinction was quite well-established in the basic color system of medieval heraldry (azure v vert), which e.g. lacks orange (a latecomer to the English lexicon), but says that green was not commonly used early on and emerged as one of the standard "tincture" options only c. 1500. It attributes this (although someone has added a [citation needed] note . . .) to an anti-green taboo among European knights on account of green being the "color of Islam" rather than lack of a sharp blue/green distinction, but still . . .

    For those who are interested, there is an entire book out there (only some of which can be read for free via google books etc) titled Blue in Old English: An Interdisciplinary Semantic Study, by C.P. Bigham.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 11:12 am

    Linda Seebach: My mother sees colors differently with one eye than the other. I have deuteranomaly (red-green color "blindness"), so she has the trait on one X chromosome. Women express only one X chromosome in any given cell, a phenomenon called "X-inactivation" or "lyonization". The distribution is patchy. So my mother apparently has mostly normal color-perceiving cells (cones) in one eye, but in the other eye the cells involved in red-green color blindness are "color-blind".

    Do you have any color-blind relatives? If not, I still wonder whether you might have very slightly different versions of one of the two color-sensitive pigments whose genes are on the X chromosome. I'm just wondering, though—I don't know that there are two such slightly different pigments.

    I suppose another explanation would be some slight difference in the cornea or lens of one of your eyes.

  31. Brett said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

    I have red-green colorblindness, and my color vision is also slightly different between my two eyes. I had a couple of dressers that looked brownish green to one eye and brownish red to the other. My colorblindness also has some unusual features, and I've never uncovered an adequate explanation of them all.

  32. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    An interesting example of color-naming confusion is the Catalan name of the French Riviera, which is la Costa Blava ("the Blue Coast" or, literally, a translation of la Côte Bleue, which is a different stretch of French coast) and not la Costa d'Atzur (which would be the right translation of la Côte d'Azur). The reason is that the name is not translated from French but from Spanish, which — unlike French, Catalan and Italian — did not adopt a cognate of the Germanic blue but instead uses azul (azure) to denote blue in general, with celeste used to specify sky-blue or azure (heraldic azure is azur, however). But Spaniards chose, on phonetic or etymological grounds, to refer to the Côte d'Azur as la Costa Azul, from which the Catalans took their version of the name.

    It may also be that the Catalans named their own coast, the Costa Brava, as a play on Costa Blava.

    Lastly, the name Côte d'Azur is also a play on words: it is calqued on the Côte d'Or in Burgundy and uses the fact that in French côte means both "coast" (the former) and "cuesta" (the latter).

  33. un malpaso said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    It's obvious that the Dress has befuddled lots of people simply because it exists at the point where two very misunderstood areas, Art and Linguistics, meet. Most people think they know quite a bit about both, when in fact few know the intricacies of either.

    As a professional visual artist and a layman enthusiast of linguistics, the reaction to the Dress didn't surprise me at all. What surprises me is how truly angry people on ALL sides of the argument got, and how quickly.

    Josef Albers, in the classic "Interaction of Color", put it best: "In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually."

    I recommend that anyone who is interested in the perception of color find a copy of this excellent book and read it immediately, it's one of my favorites :)

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

    Levantine: On a screen, if you mix a lot of red and green in equal parts with no blue, you get yellow, and if you mix a little red and green you get greenish brown. Increasing the red gives what the people who name colors think of as true brown. You can try it at Html Color Codes.

    Likewise with CMYK printing, if you mix yellow and black, you get greenish brown shades. You can look for the color "olive" at CMYK Selected Color Codes. Colors with "brown" in their names include some magenta.

    You can explore those sites to see the difference between light brown and yellow, but you'll find you don't need all three primary colors, either additive or subtractive, to get brown.

    So I wouldn't say Scasc was wrong to say brown was dark yellow—though maybe "dark yellow-orange" would be a little more precise.

    On the subject of pink being red and white, I've stopped asking at nurseries for low-water plants (suitable for New Mexico) that have pink flowers. The employees always show me what I call light purple. (A botanist might mention anthocyanin.)

  35. maidhc said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

    J. W. Brewer: I think that in the Middle Ages there was some association between green and wildness, such as the Green Man, The Green Knight, etc.. It was the color of anti-civilization. I don't know if this was related to the use of green in Islam, but it seems independent. This association would have a negative effect on choosing it as a heraldic color.

    On the other hand, there are some arms that have a wild man as a bearer, but I don't know at what date this occurred.

    Of the 17 contrade of Siena, four have green among their colors. And green is associated with Ireland (this may be part of the problem too).

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    Yes, it's not as if lack of early heraldic use means it's not known as a color term and indeed I just wasted a little time with a concordance of the Canterbury Tales establishing that "grene" is much more common than "blew[e]" (spelled by Chaucer the same whether a color term or the past tense of "blowe"). The heraldic use would just be nice because it's one in which all of the tinctures are being used contrastively with each other in the exact same context (thus removing confounding variables).

  37. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

    Jerry Friedman, what you say actually bears out my point. Yes, red and green together give brown, but that's because green is itself a mixture of blue and yellow. One can also get brown by mixing purple (or purplish magenta) with green, because purple itself contains blue and red. The important thing is that all three primary colours are involved.

    I grant you that yellow mixed with black gives a colour that might be understood as brownish (, but it's not true brown; rather, it's a dirty shade of yellow for which we don't have a widely accepted name (I myself might call it khaki). As I said in my earlier message, light brown (brown mixed with white) certainly doesn't equal yellow.

    My point is not particularly controversial. Can you think of a colour other than red that, depending on its saturation, is construed in the English-speaking world as two separate colours, each with its own name and associations?

  38. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    un malpaso, could you clarify why you think lack of linguistic and/or artistic knowledge is relevant to how people see and name the colours of a photograph? Are you saying that how one views the colours in question depends on one's level of education in the areas you specify?

  39. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I apologise — I just realised that I misread and misunderstood what you were saying. You're talking about the additive primaries, whereas I'm obviously talking about the subtractive primaries. In either case, brown can be achieved only by combining different colours.

  40. blahedo said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

    On the brown/yellow thing, I'll point out that though brown was not a *perfect* match for "dark yellow" and vice versa, they were close enough that in the good old days of ANSI colour codes they were mapped to the same value, so that where others would have e.g. "dark blue/bright blue", colour #3 was "brown/yellow". I remember being initially very surprised by that ("but they're not the same!"), for roughly the reasons Levantine lays out, but the fact remains that they're *at least* close relatives.

  41. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    blehedo, it may be possible to get something that stands in for brown by darkening yellow, but try taking true brown, lightening it, and convincing anyone that the end result is yellow. Perhaps, contrary to my sense of things, most people consider the two colours a pair comparable to red and pink (and black and grey), in which case I'm willing to revise my opinion. But I, for one, have never regarded yellow as light brown, or brown as dark yellow.

  42. David said,

    March 3, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

    I really don't think it's fair to blame radiolab, boingboing, the BBC, and these other groups for their sloppiness. You see, in their culture, they have no word for 'science'. So of course they can't tell the difference between replicable (or anyway published) research and fluff. If you don't believe me, consider this tribal group from Namibia…

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 12:37 am

    Levantine: Not to worry about the misunderstanding. I'm interested in your calling that color you linked to "a dirty shade of yellow". I'd call it a kind of brown. My color-blind opinion may not be worth anything, but I've never heard anyone call a color anything like that "yellow" (except for the strange names of skin colors). Anyway, try throwing a little red paint in there and see if you don't get a true brown.

    What do you mean by lightening brown? If you add white, you get light brown. If you take out black, you get yellow-orange. With real paint, it would be easier to add more yellow and somewhat less red than to take out black, of course.

    Like you, I don't think most English speakers consider brown and yellow a pair like red and pink. I was certainly surprised to learn how to make brown. But what people think, though it's vital for linguistics, doesn't affect how you can make brown with light or ink.

  44. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 12:41 am

    Since we're talking about language, voici quelques souliers jaunes pour hommes. I don't know whether jaune means that color for anything but shoes.

  45. Michael Watts said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 1:36 am

    the English children only ever confuse the navy blue to the blue on the left, whereas the Himba children confuse the navy blue with the black

    Funny, as an English speaker growing up in the US, I frequently observed people calling navy blue things black.

    Heck, I've had a lot of people tell me my hair is black (it's brown). And hair is a domain where black can only be expected to contrast with brown[1], so naively I'd expect a lot less confusion between "dark" and "black" in that area.

    [1] Yes, some people have very light hair, but I don't imagine anyone ever gets confused between light blond and black.

  46. Rich Rostrom said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 2:02 am

    Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Department of Psychology, Cognitive Psychology reseach team (dir. Professor Isabelle Blanchette), lists this among the publications of former post-doc member Serge Caparos:

    Davidoff, J., Bremner, A., Caparos, S., De Fockert, J., & Linnell K. J. (2012). What the Himba saw. Poster présenté au congrès ECVP (European Conference on Visual Perception), Alghero, Italie, Septembre 2012.

    Note that the item is a poster, not a paper. The ECVP archive for its 2012 meeting ( lists 603 "posters" as if they were papers, presented up to 80+ at a time in a 90-minute period in a designated hall. (This is a format I've never heard of before.) However the Himba paper is not listed. Nor is it among the 63 posters from ECVP 2012 deposited at

    Maybe this is a real scholarly work; the antecedents look like it. But what is this "poster at the conference" format? And why is the Himba "poster" not listed by the ECVP?

    [(myl) Poster sessions are normal and common at conferences in many fields — maybe most fields, now. And in some fields, the poster presentation is associated with publication (usually online) of a 4-8 page paper version of the same material (though I don't think this is the norm in psychology).

    The fact that does not list "What the Himba saw" suggests that perhaps the poster was accepted but was never actually presented. And the fact that Google Scholar comes up empty when searching for "What the Himba saw" is an additional piece of evidence.]

  47. Scasc said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 2:20 am


    there is no "true" brown/green/blue/red.

    Though I admit, that a light medium brown is more orange.
    See HSL 30°/100%/30% (medium brown) vs. HSL 30°/100%/50% (medium orange): same hue.

    So mutatis mutandis (orange for yellow) my criticism holds: you shouldn't be surprised to have an own name for "light red" (ie. pink), when orange is simply "light brown".

    While for the medium tones orange might be a better match, answer me, which color the darkening of 48°/100%/70% (pale warm yellow) to 48°/100%/20% is? To me that's a cold dark brown.

  48. Joyce Melton said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 3:31 am

    As a person with training in both physics and art, yes, brown is a shade of yellow. "Light" brown is tan, though, not really yellow because with any kind of pigments, it's impossible to lighten brown without desaturating it also. And yellow is bright, saturated, brown. If you want to see a dark yellow that is still saturated, look at the color usually called gold.

    Some shades of brown map more to orange or even red or green, brown is a very slippery term. But just because you can mix red, yellow and blue pigments and get a kind of brown does not mean anything about what the physical properties of the light coming off such a mixture really are.

    BTW, I saw the dress as blue and brown. :) The confusion caused by that picture is an illustration of a consequence of the Land effect (named after the guy who invented the Polaroid camera and who first described color constancy). Basically, we don't see colors in our eyes, we see colors in the interpretation our brains make of the signals they get from our eyes.

  49. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 7:11 am

    Jerry Friedman, you're quite right to question my description of the colour in the image. I called it a dirty shade of yellow only because I knew it was derived from yellow. Had I seen it without knowing so, I would have read it as a muddy dark green/khaki (though not as brown — it lacks redness). One of the characteristics of yellow as most people understand it is its brightness, so very dark yellow stops registering as such (at least to me).

    Many of us lighten brown on a daily basis by adding milk to tea or coffee. I would not call the resultant colour yellow, and I would reject a cup of milky tea or coffee that turned such a hue.

    Scasc and Joyce Melton, one of the first things you learn when painting (and I too have a background in art) is how to mix different colours, and a "classic" brown is achieved by mixing red, blue, and yellow. Yes, the term "brown" is slippery, and adding black to orange gets a reasonable approximation. But not everyone will agree that the end result is brown, and other terms like "terracotta" might start coming into play. Scasc, you yourself have contradicted yourself in this regard: earlier, you asserted that brown is nothing more than dark yellow, and now you're saying it's simply dark orange. (For what it's worth, the second of the browns you identify reads to me as a muddy green, or, more bluntly, the colour of high-vegetable-content diarrhoea.) And Joyce Melton, I still maintain that brown cannot be dark yellow when light brown (the colour of milky coffee) is not yellow. If the issue here were merely desaturation, then no colour lightened with white would look like itself.

    I'm still baffled as to why what I'm saying is controversial. We may not agree over what constitutes brown, but no-one would dispute that adding white to red produces a colour that is unproblematically regarded as pink. The red/pink split (two shades somehow seen and understood as two separate colours) is notably distinctive in the anglophone reckoning of colours (unless, as I've stated above, we also include black-grey). And even if some people do regard brown as forming such a pair with orange or yellow, does this really take anything away from my overall point, which is that it's interesting that not all colours are similarly subdivided in people's thinking and naming of them? As I mentioned earlier, Italian (and I've since discovered that the same is true of Russian) classes light blue apart, while also maintaining a red/pink distinction. This doesn't do anything to make the phenomenon in question less intriguing. Quite the opposite.

  50. scav said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 7:16 am

    So, er, Homer. Blind guy. For all I know his "wine dark sea" was a description of the taste.

  51. Rodger C said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    Since someone's brought that back up, isn't there some dispute over what woinops means in the first place?

  52. Eli Nelson said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 8:01 am

    Slightly off topic, but an interesting aspect of the red-pink distinction is that, although pink can be a light tint of red, it is also used to refer to a saturated shade of what color theorists would call magenta: red light with blue mixed in. I suppose the similarity is that both are bright colors with a high but not 100% saturation of red and with no green.

  53. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 8:09 am

    Eli Nelson, good point. And magenta with less blue becomes hot pink. Not all pink is bright, though: think of the baby or powder varieties.

  54. Scasc said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 8:27 am


    Via the subtractive color model ("mixing pigments") you cannot achieve every visible color; neither by display on monitors.

    However, the hue value of the HSL/HSV is well defined, and what I said, holds: orange and brown are the same color hue, with different lightness, ie. colloquially: light, saturated brown is orange. This is, however, not the same as "adding white pigment to brown" –this is also your coffee+milk example–, as that will desaturate the color, giving you something most people would describe as "tan".

    It's quite useful to have at least a basic understanding of color composition models, color space and generally, the neurobiology of color perception, not just having used and mixed paint and having a latte.

  55. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    Scasc, you're in no position to teach me about colours when you yourself switched positions as to whether brown should be paired with yellow or orange.

    Let me reformulate my point in terms that even won't find objectionable:

    It is widely agreed that there are eleven basic colour terms in English: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, grey, black, and white. Of these, two (pink and grey) are simply shades of two others (red and black). In some people's eyes (and you're in good company, since Wikipedia agrees with you), brown and orange form a similar pair. Regardless, it is unusual in English (and probably many other languages) for a single colour to be construed as two entirely separate colours on the basis of how light or dark it is. For some people (including me), this unusual state of affairs is noteworthy and even intriguing. For others (like you), it's not.


  56. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Brown is another color for which Spanish (unlike French, Italian and Catalan) did not adopt the Germanic cognate. But unlike azul for blue, there is no common word for brown, and different Hispanic cultures have adopted different designations: marrón in Spain, café in Mexico, carmelita in Colombia…

    There is, however, the word pardo for a greyish brown or brownish grey; does anyone know if any other language has a specialized color name like that?

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    Coby Lubliner: English has "dun", defined by the OED as "1. a. Of a dull or dingy brown colour; now esp. dull greyish brown, like the hair of the ass and mouse." (I wonder whether they'll change "the hair of the ass" when they revise it.) However, sense 1. b. is "Of a horse: of a light yellow or sand colour," and I suspect that's now the more common meaning of this rather uncommon word.

  58. BZ said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 10:59 am

    RE:purple vs violet: purple is not a real color ( When I found out I was overjoyed since, when I was younger I insisted that my favorite color was violet and not purple.

    Also, the Russian word for purple is not commonly used (also, I associate it with a shade of red). On the other hand, in Russian, the word for Lilac is a well-known color which approximates what I think of as purple.

  59. Joyce Melton said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    @Levantine: In painting, a classic brown is achieved by taking a tube of brown paint (one of the classic earth pigments like burnt sienna) and putting it on your palette then adjusting the hue with admixtures. The color reached by adding red, yellow and blue together is called "mud" and is used for various fills where a low saturation but still dark brown is needed. It IS brown but it isn't classic brown, it is merely classic mud. It could as easily be called gray, which is what it would be if you mixed perfectly balanced red, yellow and blue because pigment mixing is subtractive.

    In fact, if you want to get a really good looking black for painting with, you mix red, blue and brown. I like to start with burnt umber (brown, that is, dark yellow), add ultramarine blue and a bit of some dark vibrant red. This makes a glossy black with depth. And black is the absence of hue, everything as nearly been subtracted out.

  60. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    Joyce Melton, my real point had very little to do with brown (and I blame myself for getting into that whole debate) and everything to do with why certain shades of certain colours enjoy terminological and conceptual status as separate colours when the majority don't. Yes, you are right: classic brown in painting is achieved by taking an already brown pigment and adjusting it. But if one has only the primaries (plus black and white), the traditional prescription is that you mix all three and lighten/darken as needed. All I was really trying to get at is that not everyone sees brown as forming a natural pair with orange (or yellow), while there is much less room for debate where pink and red are concerned. And whether one sees brown as a darker version of another colour or not really makes no difference to the linguistic phenomenon I was pointing to.

  61. Joyce Melton said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

    And the point was that other light colors besides pink do not have a separate common word; when it was pointed out that brown and yellow form such a pair, you denied that this was so based on a private color theory of your own.

    The point remains, pink is light red, brown is dark yellow. I could add that sky is light blue, lavender is light purple, etc., but only brown and yellow have the currency that pink and red have. And they have been a common perceptual pair for much longer than the scarlet hues. So long that their connection is invisible to many people.

    As this discussion has proven.

  62. Joyce Melton said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    @ BZ: That wikipedia article you referenced almost completely reverses what I perceive as the common understanding of the difference between purple and violet. In those boxes at the bottom labeled purples and violets, half of each box I would call by the other name.

    To me and to most people I have talked with this about, violet is the brighter one of the pair and purple the more somber. Red violet is the name of the color that one perceives as between the high purples/violets and the low reds, a color that exists only in perception because no corresponding monochromatic light exists.

    There are other such colors but most of them are obvious mixtures, like puce and olive brown. Red violet seems to be part of the color wheel but is really the name we give to the gap in the color spiral.

  63. BZ said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

    That's interesting. My sense is more in line with what's inn the article, where purple is brighter and has more red, while violet is darker and has more blue.

    @Michael Watts,
    Hair colors can be very limited, and are often a shade of brown (not yellow!), so it's understandable that black hair would not actually be true black. After all, red hair isn't actually red, is it?

  64. BZ said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    I am getting strange duplicate comment errors, so apologies if this appears multiple times

    That's interesting. My sense is more in line with what's inn the article, where purple is brighter and has more red, while violet is darker and has more blue.

    @Michael Watts,
    Hair colors can be very limited, and are often a shade of brown (not yellow!), so it's understandable that black hair would not actually be true black. After all, red hair isn't actually red, is it?

  65. Bloix said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    "red hair isn't actually red, is it?"

    When you look at color terms, it's odd that the only one whose primary meaning is a thing of a certain color, and not the color itself, is orange. It's my understanding that this is so because all the other color terms were separate words in ancestor languages to English. But orange as a word in European languages dates only to the 12th C and was not used as a color word until the 16th c.

    So what about things that were orange before that? Well, the things that were most orange-like were called "red" – hair and copper. Neither one is much like blood in color. We still call hair "red," although we tend to call copper "copper."

    Does this mean that people couldn't tell the difference between the color of carrot-colored hair and the color of blood? Probably not, but why didn't a different word develop?

    BTW, one puzzle that I found the answer to some years ago – why do we call the color "orange" and not "carrot"? After all, Europeans have been eating root vegetables longer than citrus fruits. The answer is that orange-colored carrots didn't exist until the 17th c, when they were intentionally bred in Holland (perhaps by patriotic gardeners).

  66. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

    Joyce Melton, first, the same commenter who claimed that brown and yellow formed a pair later changed his/her mind and switched to brown and orange. Second, another commenter agreed with me that he did not regard brown and yellow as a pair. Third, what you call my private colour theory is nothing of the sort: brown *is* classified as a tertiary colour, meaning it cannot stand in the same relation to yellow (a primary) or orange (a secondary) as pink does to red. And fourth, even if some people do see brown as forming a pair with orange or yellow (and clearly not everyone agrees on the point), it does not affect my observation that most colours in their light form are not named and thought of by English-speakers as separate colours in their own right ("sky" and "lavender" are ways of describing what every anglophone would agree are shades of blue and purple respectively). All this began with me merely observing what I found, and still find, to be an interesting linguistic and conceptual inconsistency. It clearly isn't interesting to you, and that's fine.

  67. cameron said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

    @J. W. Brewer, @maidhc : Michel Pastoureau has written books on both blue and green and their histories in European culture. He got his start as a scholar of heraldry, and discusses the relative prevalence of various colors through history, and in various regions of Europe at some length. I read the book on blue a few years ago, but haven't gotten to the green one yet. The relative rarity of blue among heraldic colors in the early middle ages has more to do with the technology of dyeing than with any negative associations the color may have had. Although there are hints that nobles may have associated blue with peasants in areas where peasants dyed their homespun cloth with woad.

  68. Greenish said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

    Levantine – I'm completely with you on everything you've been saying on this thread. I don't have anything of substance to add, but, as your points seem to be being attacked more than supported, and as I agree with every one of them, I thought I'd just post this in support.

  69. Levantine said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

    Greenish (very appropriate name!), thank you — much appreciated!

  70. Martha said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    I, too, agree with you, Levantine, and I have been reading this thread very surprised to learn that one might consider brown to be dark yellow.

    When I was a kid and I didn't have a pink crayon, I'd use the red one and not press very hard. If I didn't have a gray crayon, I'd use the black one and not press very hard. If I didn't have a yellow crayon but did have a brown crayon, I would have…just decided not to draw something that needed to be yellow because there was no feasible substitute.

  71. JS said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 11:10 pm

    As the workwithcolor tool linked to by Scasc makes clear, if lightness is sufficiently low, there are a very wide range of hues stretching form reddish purple to yellowish green which English speakers are likely to name "brown."

    That what constitutes "brown" can be precisely specified in color theoretical terms is exactly the kind of idea that a little awareness of the often-arbitrary relationship between the physical world and the categories established by language ought to put paid to.

    Also interesting in this connection is that, as Coby Lubliner pointed out for Spanish, Chinese has no common word for "brown" — many things English speakers would call "brown" speakers of Chinese languages would call "red" (sugar; tea) or "yellow" (earth; that famous river; excrement).

    (However, it's true there are also a number of more ad-hoc terms for "brown," many derived from nouns, with different ones preferred in different places; my unsubstantiated guess is that such are in part inspired by contact with English and other "brown" languages.)

  72. JS said,

    March 4, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

    It happens that the definition for zōngsè 棕色 on zdic, in addressing one of the increasingly common (Mandarin) Chinese words for "brown" as such, still reflects the traditional categories: "any color in the range between red and yellow, if sufficiently dull and dark."

  73. Levantine said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 12:36 am

    Martha, many thanks.

    JS, these are very useful points. I have already conceded that brown is a murky category that can encompass a range of shades and hues. The debate here has, as I indicated earlier, convinced me that orange plus black gives a good approximation of what I would regard as "true" brown, though the pairing with yellow doesn't work for me (it apparently does for others).

    When responding to Scasc's original comment, I took exception to his/her tone, which to me seemed condescending and confrontational, and responded in kind. This was foolish of me, and I was wrong to embroil myself in what has become a distracting and tiresome tangent. Instead, I should simply have said that I didn't see brown and yellow as a pair akin to red and pink, granted that others may disagree with me, and concluded that it didn't really make a difference to my overall point, which concerns the inconsistency of our way of thinking about and naming colours. Whichever camp you fall into regarding brown, there's no disputing that, in English at least, light blue and light green are not treated as independent entities in the same way that light red is. In other words, the case of pink doesn't have to be unique to be unusual or interesting, and the real point I've been making all along is in keeping with what you have said about the arbitrariness of linguistic categorisations.

  74. Adrian Morgan said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:20 am

    I bookmarked this article a few days ago with the intention of commenting when I had time, and it has now reached the other end of that queue.

    Perceived colour difference is something I've long been interested in, but I've never heard of CIELUV, etc. It's a safe bet that the percentage of readers of a popular linguistics blog who are familiar with such things is close to zero, so a link to a less technical explanation might have been advisable.

    Anyway, I was intrigued by the sentence "euclidean distance in L*u*v* space is said to be roughly equal to psychophysical distance" because I am well familiar with the concepts but not with the vocabulary.

    "Psychophysical distance" seems an odd term, given that we're talking about a kind of abstract distance and not a physical one at all. To me, "psychophysical distance" sounds like "how far it feels to walk to the shops given that it's uphill most of the way".

    This prompted me to think about how I would express the same thought, and I decided that a colourspace in which euclidean distance corresponds as close as possible to perceived colour difference is best described as a "psychonormalised colourspace".

    I've often pondered the fact that if you have a number of coloured pieces of paper and wish to arrange them in the order that best reflects perceived colour relations, this is equivalent to solving the Travelling Salesman Problem within a psychonormalised colourspace. But until now, I didn't have the vocabulary to express that thought entirely in words.

    Some comments on the comments (which I skimmed very rapidly):

    My preferred way to explain hue, saturation and brightness to the average person is to say that hue is the colour on the rainbow that comes closest to the colour you want, brightness is whether the colour you want is light or dark, and saturation is whether the colour you want is dull or vibrant. This seems to me the most intuitive way to explain it.

    On the purple/violet debate, I say purple is a cover term for any colour in between red and blue, prototypically from the middle of that range. Violet is a subset of purple, and means reddish purple as opposed to bluish. The notion that anyone could think violet is prototypically "more blue" than purple (as BZ does, apparently) is completely at odds with my experience since childhood.

  75. Natalie Solent said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:49 am

    I, too, agree with Levantine. Yellow is a spectral colour, one of the "colours of the rainbow", associated with light of a certain band of wavelengths (around 560nm – 590nm according to Wikipedia, although people argue about where the borders of yellow fall.) Brown isn't. It's a fundamental difference.

    However I realise that my strong sense of the difference between "rainbow colours" and "paint mixture colours" (as I call them in my head) may be reinforced by knowledge of physics. As it happens I did study physics of university, but I'm not referring to that – I mean that I can blurrily remember when I first studied the colours of the rainbow in primary school using a glass prism and finding both aesthetic and intellectual pleasure in the whole subject.

    Naturally people were aware of the rainbow long before Newton or Huygens – but did it need a scientific model (even an incomplete one) of *why* yellow is seen in the rainbow but brown is not to make the difference in kind so strongly marked (to some of us, anyway)?

  76. Natalie Solent said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:57 am

    Off the top of my head, a speculation: could it be that the reason for having a special term for "pink" as opposed to "red" is to do with telling whether meat is cooked enough?

    I can't think of a situation where distinguishing something as definitely blue or green would make much difference to one's health or comfort.

  77. Levantine said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 4:53 am

    Natalie Solent, I'd never thought of meat as an explanation, though flesh of another kind does feature in my own highly speculative theory. Could it be that pink has gained independence as a term and concept because of its role in describing the complexion of light-skinned peoples ("rosey hued" and all that)? This isn't to say that white people are actually pink, but it's about as close as you can get using the basic colour terms. My niece and nephew use pink when producing pictures of their (white) parents.

  78. Catanea said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    "Violet is a subset of purple, and means reddish purple as opposed to bluish."
    But I thought roses were red and violets were blue.
    And purple is certainly very red when it is the colour manuscript vellum was dyed to write on with gold, and when emperors are depicted wearing it.
    If those of us who think purple is a warmer and violet a cooler colour are in some technical way wrong, at least there are explanations for holding that opinion.

  79. John Ohno said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    In response to comment #1491901

    This is incorrect. The english word for umami is 'savory'.

  80. JS said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    ^ Re: white-people color, I remember thinking pink to be a bizarre choice, and my classmates being similarly taken aback by my orange-fleshed figures. :D

    Re: pink, I'm going to guess ladies' fashion is the key.

  81. MaryKaye said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

    Mixing paint has a very, very tricky relationship with color theory, for a number of reasons: paints are generally far from spectrally pure colors, paints can react physically or chemically with each other in ways that theoretical colors do not, and paints are generally put onto paintings, which provide all kinds of contextual cues as to what color it *should* be.

    Eric Hebborn's _The Art Forger's Handbook_ goes into some detail about this, particularly in terms of how to forge a painting that should have yellow in it when the needed orpiment pigment is not made anymore. Apparently you can mostly use brown or green. When that doesn't work one possibility is to use brown and then add some modern yellow pigment in the very last step–and claim that the painting has been recently retouched. He says a trace amount of real yellow in one place can often make the whole yellow area look fine–it just needs a bright highlight.

    He also talks about _les trois crayones_–drawings made in red, black, and white on tinted paper, which look like colored drawings despite the limited palette. Black versus white gives you one set of contrasts (light/dark), and black/white versus red gives you another (warm/cold), and apparently that's all you need.

    Recommended book, by the way. It has a lot to say about painting techniques, but also a lot to say about art, society, and the fascinating scoundrel who wrote it.

  82. Levantine said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    JS, the problem with using fashion as an explanation is that pink wasn't much worn in the West until the eighteenth century, and even then it remained less popular than light blue.

  83. JS said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

    Don't know the history of the word — the Online Etymological Dictionary does trace the first independent use of "pink" to name the color to the early 18th century, for what it's worth.

  84. Nick said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    That yellow and brown are closely related is evidenced by our own eyes, or at least by those of someone you've probably met. Green eyes are the product of a very light smattering of brown combined with the blue from Rayleigh scattering (yellow + blue = green).

    In art class and in the darkroom, I learned two different primary colors schemes. The three primary colors of pigment were yellow, blue, red, while the primary colors of light were blue, red, and green. I see red and yellow traffic lights as identical since, being green blind, I can't see the green that forms that part of the yellow light. Yet, I can easily distinguish yellow paint from red.

    Best color blindness test I've found on the web:
    I'm in no way associated with the product they're selling.

  85. un malpaso said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    > >could you clarify why you think lack of linguistic and/or artistic knowledge is relevant to how people see and name the colours of a photograph? Are you saying that how one views the colours in question depends on one's level of education in the areas you specify?

    I was mainly thinking of the rules of color nomenclature and how they both vary and are consistent between languages. I think a lot of people simply assume that all languages name colors pretty much the same, and they don't know much about the psycholinguistic theories around it. It's not really a matter of specific in-depth linguistic knowledge.
    Maybe what I was getting at is better expressed as… I just think that in the area of perception and language, the majority of people don't give enough credit to the subjective nature of our perceptions and the fluidity of labels used across humanity to indicate them.

    Not that I am a Whorfian though :) I just try to appreciate the variety and relativity inherent in the brain's ability to describe perceptions and to set boundary areas where terms are ambiguous.

  86. un malpaso said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

    @Nick –
    True. Specifically the primary colors in print are cyan, magenta and yellow – and they are subtractive (they subtract wavelengths), which means that combining them results in black. Primary colors in light and screen pixels are red, green and blue, and they are additive colors – combining all of them (as on the retina) results in white.
    This is familiar to most everyone, I'm sure, as being the two modes of color representation for computer images.
    The interactions of both in color blindness, however, are complex and I don't even have the beginning of an understanding of them :)

  87. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

    un malpaso: "I was mainly thinking of the rules of color nomenclature and how they both vary and are consistent between languages. I think a lot of people simply assume that all languages name colors pretty much the same, and they don't know much about the psycholinguistic theories around it."

    I think you could make a stronger statement. A lot of people simply assume that speakers of their own language and dialect name colors pretty much the same, but it's easy to find disagreement.

    Adrian Morgan: Speaking of which, to me too, "violet" suggests something bluer than "purple". Elizabeth Taylor's eyes, deep blue, were sometimes described as violet.

  88. Adrian Morgan said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    @Catanea As in any other domain of language, usage is everything. If you grew up in a community where people used "violet" to mean bluish purple, that cannot be in some technical sense wrong, and my perception cannot be wrong for the same reason. Beware of historical sources, because semantic drift can and does happen.

    I'll add that in English as I know it, "purple" is a basic colour term whereas "violet" is not, and would hardly be used at all if it weren't for Newton's legacy. (And therein lies a point, because if violet were bluer than purple then purple would be ultraviolet, no?)

  89. Levantine said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    un malpaso, you're right, of course, but I think why the dress became such a big deal is that it divides us along highly unexpected lines: people weren't arguing over what to call the colours in question ("I see dark yellow"; "No, it's brown"), but were perceiving those colours entirely differently to begin with. For people who have grown up in the same culture (and who are not colourblind) to look at the same image and see either white and gold or blue and black goes well beyond the differences of opinion that have dominated this thread. I found a colleague the other idea who had somehow missed the whole thing and was thus an innocent guineapig: she saw white and gold and really didn't/couldn't believe that the picture itself contained any blue at all until I zoomed all the way in.

  90. Levantine said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

    JS, ah, well that does bolster your hunch.

  91. JS said,

    March 5, 2015 @ 9:30 pm

    I can no longer see the documentary clip, either on the BBC website or the other two MYL linked to. Just me?

  92. Katie said,

    March 6, 2015 @ 1:01 am

    This is not the mystery research in question here. But for other curious readers (who are patient enough to scroll through a bazillion comments), I found this review article to be a helpful (and very interesting) overview of color categorical perception research and whether/how color perception and linguistic categories interact.

  93. John Swindle said,

    March 6, 2015 @ 4:03 am

    There's another blue/green issue, and it's not one of color perception. The planet we live on was thought of as green within living memory, until photographs of it from space began circulating in the late 20th Century.

  94. Martha said,

    March 6, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    I have made no attempt to verify the legitimacy of this, so it may well need to be taken with a grain of salt, but: It occurs to me that a page a friend of mine recently posted ( might explain some people's reluctance to see a relationship between yellow and brown.

    I always thought "violet" was another name for purple, since Crayola labels their crayon "Violet (Purple)," or at least they used to.

  95. un malpaso said,

    March 6, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

    For what it's worth, I may be really strange – I initially saw it as white and blue/gray!
    I can make it "flip" however between interpretations pretty easily in my mind.

  96. Nathan Myers said,

    March 7, 2015 @ 1:03 am

    It's curious how so many assert confidently that pink is just a sort of washed-out red. You can't get a decent pink without mixing in some blue.

    There was an excellent book out just a few years ago exploring the Sapir-Whorf notion from the standpoint of distinctions our language forces on us: a much less slippery notion than what a language lacks. (I will try to identify the book and report, later.) It points out that color name distinctions arise as a society develops painting. Red most usually comes first, and distinctions around blue/green last.

    Who can say what color all those Subaru Outbacks are? They are not blue, not green, but certainly not anything else.

  97. Levantine said,

    March 7, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

    Nathan Myers, red and white alone make a perfectly good pink. Add enough white and you have classic baby pink. That's not to say that there aren't more purplish varieties out there also.

  98. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

    Martha: I'm afraid there's some nonsense on that page. It's certainly not true that 25% of the population are dichromats, and there's no way a test on an RGB screen could even hint that someone is a tetrachromat.

  99. Around the Web Digest: Week of March 1 | Savage Minds said,

    March 8, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    […] production (for the record, TeamWhiteAndGold). The color debate inspired this post on Language Log, It's Not Easy Seeing Green, that calls foul on recent claims that Namibian groups' color words or lack thereof make it […]

  100. Around the Web Digest: Week of March 1 | DF Sandbox said,

    March 8, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

    […] production (for the record, TeamWhiteAndGold). The color debate inspired this post on Language Log, It’s Not Easy Seeing Green, that calls foul on recent claims that Namibian groups’ color words or lack thereof make it […]

  101. gabe colors said,

    March 8, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

    I've been experimenting with afterimage as the compass for compementary colors and have been struck by how diverse a magenta/red/near purple color we get with the complement of very similar looking greens. I applaud the effort here to research the "himba green" and find it very annoying that no one else (me included) questioned this to a greater degree previously.

    Incidentally, we are collecting all the data from user behavior for the color sorting game huedoku which is in the app store for ipads and iphones, it would be great to have feedback on the colors we are using for the puzzles before we get too far along.


  102. Marvin said,

    March 9, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    Instead of speculating, has anyone thought of contacting Mr. Caparos or Mr. Davidoff and just ask about the experiment?
    As this topic does not quite fall into my profession, I don't feel qualified doing it.

  103. Alex Bollinger said,

    March 10, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    I was wondering about the study from the first sentence. "The Himba" can distinguish this but not that is an unsatisfying statement – did literally every single Himba person fail to see blue but saw the dark green? That doesn't sound right because even I saw the slightly-off green square. What kind of screen was being used, and what kind of graphics card? What time of day was it? What was the lighting in the room like? Etc.

    But that's all to complicated for a film-maker who's looking for a study to point to and say "Established fact!"

  104. David Briggs said,

    March 11, 2015 @ 8:46 am

    A very similar experiment conducted on students in California was published in 2006. IF this is the experment that was being tried on the Himba then the two greens are more different and the blue much more similar than they appear in the BBC documentary.…jpg

    The american students were reportedly about 6% (25 microseconds) slower in spotting an odd square having the same colour name in the right visual field, and not at all slower in the left – a much smaller discrepancy than the documentary imputes for the Himba!

    "Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left"
    Aubrey L. Gilbert, Terry Regier, Paul Kay, and Richard B. Ivry, 2006.

  105. David Briggs said,

    March 12, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    I'll try that image link again:

    I meant to add that if the Himba research was underway in mid-2011 it's perfectly possible that the publication is still held up in the pipeline somewhere.

  106. Alon Lischinsky said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    @Cory Lubliner:

    different Hispanic cultures have adopted different designations: marrón in Spain, café in Mexico, carmelita in Colombia…

    “Marrón” is well attested in corpora of Mexican and Colombian usage, as is “color café” (the string I used to disambiguate from the beverage) in Peninsular Spanish, so I find your assertion quite dubious. My own intuition (as a native speaker of Rioplatense) is that “carmelita” ⊆ “café” ⊆ “marrón”.

    @Levantine: what about the “brown”/“beige” pair? It seems to me analogous to the “red”/“pink” one, in that the terms differ on lightness only. (Incidentally, it's not only Italian that distinguishes light from dark blue as primary terms, but also Spanish [“azul”/“celeste”] and Russian [“синий”/“голубой”].)

    @Bloix: as a matter of fact, “pink” began as a term for an object (the flowers now more often called “carnations”) and only acquired the colour sense more than a century afterwards (says the OED).

  107. Oona Houlihan said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

    To really settle these color disputes you should have a) calibrated monitors and b) untinted glasses (or take your glasses off) and c) not be exposed to artificial lighting, esp. no neon or energy saver bulbs. That said, color does not hinge on language. If it were so, people with language impairments would not have a "notion" of color. Rather all our "notions" of language differentials when it comes to tastes, touches or colors are maybe artificially amplified by language, but even a tribe with a different set of words does not necessarily see differently. We now know, for example, that Whorf was mistaken about the Inuit's different shades of white – he just didn't understand agglutinating languages – a feat for a linguis indeed …

  108. Oona Houlihan said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

    To really settle these color disputes you should have a) calibrated monitors and b) untinted glasses (or take your glasses off) and c) not be exposed to artificial lighting, esp. no neon or energy saver bulbs. That said, color does not hinge on language. If it were so, people with language impairments would not have a "notion" of color. Rather all our "notions" of language differentials when it comes to tastes, touches or colors are maybe artificially amplified by language, but even a tribe with a different set of words does not necessarily see differently. We now know, for example, that Whorf was mistaken about the Inuit's different shades of white – he just didn't understand agglutinating languages – a feat for a linguist indeed …

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