Different cultures see different colours
Now let me warn you, this is some pretty mind-blowing information. The colours people see are not universal. Not everyone sees all of the colours of the rainbow – some may see just three.
But wait a second, you’re probably asking, this doesn’t mean that they can’t perceive the colour, does it? We all have the same eye structure right? We all have cone cells and rod cells which allow us to see, and we all can see the same spectrum of colours (unless you are colour blind – click here for a colour blindness test).
So what’s going on here?
Colour is one of the first things we learned as children in Australia. It seems as natural to us as breathing air. We all learnt the three primary colours – yellow, red, and blue – but other cultures don’t necessarily recognise all of these colours or any of them at all. But how can that possibly be true?
Well, it may have more to do with linguistics than with perception. Different cultures group individual colours differently and thus give them names according to how they categorise them. That means some cultures may have four basic colour words, while others may have ten or more.
Stranger still is that some cultures don’t give the concept of colour a name at all, such as the indigenous Candoshi people from the Amazon. In the case of the Candoshi people, although they do not have specific words for different colours, they can still distinguish between colours. Instead of saying ‘that bird is red’, they compare it to something of the same colour, in this case, they would use the term chobiapi which means ‘ripe fruit’. However, this is not the only term they might use for the colour red. They may also describe red as koraasi, which means something is like blood. In other words, the Candoshi people don’t use a single word to describe a colour, but rather they relate it to the object they feel is most like that colour. In this way, colour is very subjective.
Let’s talk about colours and smells
While some languages do not have ‘colour talk’, the English language doesn’t really have much in the way of ‘smell talk’. Have you ever tried to explain a smell to someone? (Mmm do you smell Macca’s?) This difficulty would seem weird to people speaking other languages, such as the Jahai of the Malay Peninsula. For Jahai speakers, naming smells comes as easy to them as naming colours does for us. How would you describe to someone who asked you what Macca’s smelt like? Salty? I’d certainly have to think about that one for a while…
So what does this all boil down to? Languages can to a certain extent alter our ability to recognise or describe colours, and indeed smells too. So if you want to become better at naming a smell, then maybe you should learn a different language.
But even if we do speak the same language, colour can be a very difficult thing to agree on – Does anyone remember the infamous white and gold versus blue and black dress debate of 2015? It just goes to show how subjective colours can be across cultures, languages and even within languages. It leaves you asking the question: Do you really see what I see?