Our Colorful World: How Different Cultures Describe Color

How often do you think about color? Have you ever asked yourself whether different cultures experience colors differently? What implications does that have on how English language students experience the world and learn vocabulary? As a coach who works with students hailing from countries as diverse as China and Chile, I’m always on the look out for material that helps incorporate cultural differences into my lessons. Recently, I read a fascinating article by Philip Ball about how cultures perceive and describe colors differently.

Take the English words “blue” and “green.” They’re different words, different colors, right? Not if you’re Vietnamese or Korean where there’s no differentiation between the two. The article goes on to describe an amusing encounter between a British artist and his friend in London. The artist complimented his friend on his beautiful yellow coat — but his friend replied that when he bought it in Tokyo it was perceived as green not yellow. Turns out there’s truly more than meets the eye and not all eyes see the same.

Naming colors is part of the complex categorization of the world by humans where distinctions are not inherent. Studying cultural differences in regard to color is a study of the evolution of language itself. Ball explains, “In essence, this argument relates to the entire edifice of language: how it is that we divide the world into specific categories of object or concept that we can all, within a given culture, agree on. Somehow we arrive at a language that distinguishes “cup”, “mug”, “glass”, “bowl” and so on, without there being well-defined and mutually exclusive ‘natural’ criteria for these terms."

Ball’s statement describes the interrelatedness of languages, cultures, and human psychology— a topic that continues to fascinate me and inspires my teaching. In its essence, it conveys the core of the human experience — communication and how we relate to each other in our environment. Some cultures live in black and white, some live without blue. The beauty is in the difference.

(Image source)

Marike Korn