Philosophers have a bad reputation for casting unwarranted doubt on established facts. Little could be more certain than your belief that the cloudless sky, on a summer afternoon, is blue. Yet we may wonder in earnest, is it also blue for the birds who fly up there, who have different eyes from ours? And if you take an object that shares that color—like the flag of the United Nations—and place half in shadow and half in the full sun, one side will be a darker blue. You might ask, what is the real color of the flag? The appearances of colors are frequently changing with the light, and as we move the objects surrounding them. Does that mean that the actual colors change?
This is something I’ve often wondered about. Are the distinctions we make between different colours culturally specific or somehow inherent? This article is a great examination of that very question, and much more besides. Here’s a taster, and you can you read the full thing here (via kottke.org).
In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.
Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.