As clear as mud

Does our ability to see colours depend on the words we use for them? It’s a question with a rich history
June 21, 2010

Homer and his guide (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World By Guy Deutscher (Heinemann, £20)

In 1858, long before he became the Grand Old Man of British politics, William Gladstone published a three-volume study of Homer and the Homeric age. In those days the fact that an MP could produce a substantial work of classical scholarship did not strike anyone as surprising. But Gladstone managed to set off a flare of controversy with his concluding speculations about what you might call the “mentality” of the ancient Greeks. Those who believed in cultural progress were pleased with his suggestion, based on Homer’s use of numbers, that the level of mathematical ability amongst the founders of western civilisation was “below that of contemporary schoolchildren.” But nearly everyone was disconcerted by a long chapter on “Homer’s Perception and Use of Colour,” which made a parallel case for the inferiority of the ancient experience of the visible world.

Anyone who has tried to imagine a “wine-dark sea” will have had some doubts about Homer’s sense of colour, but Gladstone took the argument much further. After compiling an inventory of the visual vocabulary of the Odyssey and the Iliad, he suggested that the Greeks of Homer’s time could not see any difference between green and yellow and that they regarded blue not as a distinct colour but as a darker shade of brown. Unlike modern schoolchildren, moreover, the heroic Greeks could not even name the seven colours of the rainbow. They suffered, to use a faddish new expression, from “colour-blindness,” and their world picture was not so much an oil painting as a faintly tinted monochrome. Gladstone’s assumption that everyday experience was subject to evolution over time was not in itself controversial; indeed it had become commonplace since John Locke set out his theory of human understanding nearly 200 years before. 

According to Locke, the “ideas” with which we frame most of our experience—“complex” ideas of particular things like trees and people, and “abstract” ideas of qualities like humanity or rationality—were arbitrary rather than absolute. They were not discovered in nature fully formed, but constructed by the understanding through a laborious process of refining and compounding the crude materials delivered to it by the inner and outer senses. Once the understanding had finished work on its artificial ideas, these ideas could be fixed in verbal formulas and thus incorporated into the fabric of language. Hence the cumulative historic progress of the human mind: as soon as little children began to speak, they became unwitting beneficiaries of the intellectual labours of earlier generations. We need only consider the disappointments of translation and the imperfections of polyglot dictionaries, Locke said, to realise that languages are largely conventional and that each language channels our thoughts in its own peculiar ways. 

Words were not just expressions of thoughts or representations of things; they were also forces that shaped the experiences of individuals and entire nations. After Locke’s death his modest suggestion burgeoned into a vigorous doctrine of linguistic determinism. One Enlightenment cynic maintained that people would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard people talking about it, and the Romantics made a fetish of the antique wisdom they saw lurking in the depths of favoured national languages. And the same supposition animates modern practices of marketing, politics, and education: poetic inventions like “body odour,” “social exclusion” and “emotional intelligence” all bear witness to the fact that the point of phrase-making is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. Locke and his followers insisted, however, on setting limits to the arbitrariness of human experience: if it were allowed to spread from abstract and complex ideas to the ultimate constituents of sensation and reflection—to “simple ideas” as he called them—then the link between ideas and reality would be broken and all our hopes of solid, shared, cumulative knowledge would be dashed. Hence the anxiety provoked by Gladstone’s disobliging comments on the visual world of the Greeks: if something as basic as colour could be experienced differently in different times and places, could the world be safe for scientific objectivity? 

There were of course some thinkers who relished the prospect of taking science down a peg or two; and the speculations of Britain’s greatest Liberal politician soon crossed the English Channel to awake a sympathetic echo in Europe’s most reckless philosopher of aristocratic radicalism. Friedrich Nietzsche was enchanted by the thought that the early Greeks “used the same word to describe the colour of dark hair, corn-flowers, and the southern sea,” and that they saw no difference in colour between “the greenest shoots, human skin, honey, and yellow sap.” But green and blue were the colours of “dehumanisation”—alien to healthy human bodies yet abundant in the natural world—and if the Greeks had neither eyes nor names for them, they turned their disability into a source of strength and joy. The debate over colour, language and cultural variation is still running, and Guy Deutscher brings the story up to date in his latest work of breathless popular science. He starts with Gladstone but moves quickly to the 20th century, and in a chapter humorously entitled “Crying Whorf,” he mocks the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who argued in the 1930s that every language embodies its own world-view. Speakers of English, according to Whorf, tend to cut the world into separate slices, ending up with crude dualisms and a “bipolar division of nature,” whereas native Americans see the world as a harmonious whole because they use words that “flow together.” 

Whorf’s doctrine of ‘linguistic relativity’ was soon extended to perceptual experience, and anthropologists began to entertain the idea that the way we see colour depends not on nature but on culture, and specifically on the manifold ways in which different languages divide up the visible spectrum. Deutscher has no patience with cultural relativism, and his narrative pivots on the publication, in 1969, of a short book called Basic Color Terms by two Californian psychologists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. Working across 20 different languages, Berlin and Kay demonstrated that basic colour judgements were immune to cultural variation; and thus, as Deutscher sees it, left the linguistic relativism of the anthropologists as an intellectual ruin, even if it still serves as a “tax-haven for mystical philosophers, fantasists, and postmodern charlatans.” Bewilderingly, Deutscher then throws his argument into reverse. There is a danger, he says, of “underestimating the power of culture,” and he summarises some subtle experiments which show that native Russian speakers, who use two distinct words to cover what we would call “blue,” have peculiar ideas about which shades of blue are closer to green. 

He also describes an Australian language that indicates directions by reference to points of the compass and has no words for left or right. (“There’s a snake just west of your foot,” for instance.) He concludes that the “linguistic world” of this language, Guugu Yimithirr, occupies a different “mode” from ours. Linguistic relativity triumphs after all, and after taking his readers on a fascinating scientific journey, Deutscher ends up in the same place as Locke, Nietzsche and indeed his “postmodern charlatans.” Gladstone had the good fortune not to be bothered by the bogey of relativism, and after an interval of 20 years he returned to Homer and the history of colour perception with undiminished zeal. “A child of three years in our nurseries sees more of colour,” said the people’s William, “than the man who founded for the race the sublime office of the poet.” Indeed he was now inclined to believe that the early Greeks saw everything in various shades of grey, and that they had no sense of colour at all. 

There is reason to think he was mistaken, but at least he was open to the variousness of human experience—and it was not a bad kind of mistake to be making, half way through a long career as prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer.