Culture vs nature

Did you know that color is a cultural concept?

Of course, the color spectrum is quite continuous, and so where you mark off color transitions could be arbitrary. But it isn't because the human eye sees saturation at specific frequencies and it is those colors that receive names and in any case, that's not what I am talking about.

Instead, what I'm talking about is something that British Prime Minister Gladstone first pointed out -- that Homer's epics describe the world purely in black and white. Greek culture at the time did not have words for green or blue -- thus Homer's skies and oceans are dark, not blue or sea-green. Many cultures start out with names of just dark and light, and may add in red.

Colors beyond black, white and red are very much a product of the ability to make artificial dyes.  Until a culture can make any arbitrary color, it doesn't come up with names for any more colors.

In "Through the Language Glass", Guy Deutscher explains it in terms of our language of taste.  The words that we have to describe taste are incredibly crude: sweet, sour, spicy.  A refined palate would probably point out hints of cardamom or mesquite. And that too is the point -- our words for taste are totally circumscribed by their natural sources.  And in a culture that does not make artificial dyes (as opposed to creating reds from cochineal insects, for example), their words for colors are similarly crude.

I picked up the book expecting a quick read of obvious arguments about how German is formal because Germans are formal, but he makes mincemeat of that in the first 20 pages and then delves into truly jaw-dropping stuff.  The book is a must read, not only for the simply amazing anecdotes, but for its sophisticated take on the culture-vs-nature question.

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