How Culture Conditions the Colours We See

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How Culture Conditions the Colours We See

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The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore, Maryland


How Culture Conditions the Colours ,:ve See

I Colour is not an easy matter. James Gibson, in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, says that "the meaning of the term colour is one of the worst muddles in the history of science".1 If one uses the term "colour" to mean the

pigmentation of substances in the emironment, one has not said anything about our chromatic perception. Johannes Inen, in his Kunst der Farbe, distinguishes between pigments as chromatic reality and our perceptual response as chromatic effect.2 The chromatic effect, it seems, depends on many factors: the nature of surfaces, light, contrast between objects, previous knowledge, and so on. I do not have any competence about pigments and I have very confused ideas about the laws governing chromatic effect; moreover I am neither a painter, nor an art critic. My personal relationship with the coloured world is a private affair as much as my sexual activity, and I am not supposed to entertain my readers with my personal reactivity towards the polychromous theatre of the world. Thus, as far as colours are concerned, I take the privilege of considering myself a blind man. I shall be writing about colours from a merely theoretical point of view, namely, from the point of view of a general semiotic approach. Since I have assumed myself to be blind or at least a Daltonist, I shall mistrust my visual experience. I shall start from a verbal text, chapter 26, Book II, of Aulus Gellius' Noaes Aaicae, a Latin encyclopaedia of the second century A.O. To deal with colours by making recourse to a tex1 of this period is rather 1

James Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual SJ,stems (London: Allen & Cnwin, 1968). 2 Johannes ltten, Kunst der Farbe (Ravensburg: Otto Mair, 1961).


challenging. We are facing linguistic terms for colours, but we do not know what chromatic effects these words refer to. \re know much about Roman sculpture and architecture, but \'ery linle about Roman painting. The colours we see today in Pompeii are not the colours the Pompeians saw; ewn if the pigments are the same, the chromatic responses are not. In the nineteenth century, Gladstone suggested that Greeks were unable to distinguish blue from yelYow. Goetz and many others assumed that Latin speakers did not distinguish blue from green. I have found also somewhere that Egyptians used blue in their paintings but had no linguistic term to designate it, and that Assyrians, in order to name the colour blue, could do no bener than transform the noun "uknu", naming lapis lazuli, into an adjectiYe. All of this is highly speculative, but we need not test every case. Let me concentrate on the following passage from Aulus Gellius. The reader is ad,ised to hold his temper, since the passage is highly confusing. Gellius is reporting a conversation he had with Fronto, a poet and grammarian, and Favorinus, a philosopher. Favorinus remarked that eyes are able to isolate more colours than words can name. Red (rufus) and green (viridis), he said, have only two names but many species. He was, without knowing it, introducing the contemporary scientific distinction between identification (understood as categorization) and discrimination, of which I shall speak later. Favorinus continues: rufus is a name, but what a difference between the red of blood, the red of purple, the red of saffron, and the red of gold! They are all differences of red but, in order to define them, Latin can only make recourse to adjectives derived from the names of objects, thus calling flammeus the red of fire, sanguineus the red of blood, croceus the red of saffron, aureus the red of gold. Greek has more names, Favorinus says, but Fronto replies that Latin, too, has many colour terms and that, in order to designate russus and ruber (red), one can also use fulvus, flavus, rubidus, poeniceus, rutilus, luteus, spadix. Now if one looks at the whole history of Latin literature, one notices that fulvus is associated by Virgil and other authors with the lion's mane, with sand, wolves, gold, eagles, but also with jasper. Flavae, in Virgil, are the hair of the blond Dido, as well as olive leaves; and the Tiber river, because of the yellow-grey mud polluting its waters, was commonly called flavus. The other terms all refer to various gradations of red, from pale rose to dark red: notice, for instance, that luteus, which Fronto defines as "diluted red", is referred by Pliny to the egg-yolk and by Catullus to poppies. In order to add more precision, Fronto says thatfuh·us is a mixture of red and green, while flavus is a mixture of green, red and white. Fronto then quotes another example from Virgil (Georgica, III, 82) where a horse (commonly interpreted by philologists as a dapple-grey horse) is glaucus. Now glaucus in Latin tradition stands for greenish, light-green, blue-green and grey-blue; Virgil uses this adjective also for willow trees and for ulva or sea lettuce, as well as for waters. Fronto says that Virgil could also have used for his same purpose (his grey horse) caerulus. Now this term is usually associated with the sea, skies,



the eyes of Minerva, watermelons and cucumbers (Propertius), while JuYenal employs it to describe some sort of rye bread. And things get no better with viridis (from which comes the Italian rerde, green), since in the whole of Latin tradition, one can find viridis associated with grass, skies, parrots, sea, trees. I have suggested that Latin did not clearly distinguish blue from green, but a\' f orinus gives us the impression that Latin users did not even distinguish blue-green from red, since he quotes Ennius (Anna/es, XIV, 372-3) who describes the sea at the same time as caeruleus and flavus as marble. Favorinus agrees with this, since - he says - Fronto had previously described jlarus as a mi,xture of green and white. But one should remember that, as a matter of fact, fronto had said thatjlavus was green, white and red, and a few lines before that, had classifiedj/avus among various gradations of red! Let me exclude any explanation in terms of colour blindness. Too easy. Gellius and his friends were erudites; they were not' describing their O\m perceptions, they were elaborating upon literary texts coming from different centuries. Can �e say that they were considering cases of poetic invention where, by a provocative use of language, fresh and uncommon impressions are ,ividly depicted? If that were the case, we would expect from them more excitation, more marvel, more appreciation for these stylistic tours de force. On the contrary, they propose all these cases as examples of the most correct and precise use of language. Thus the puzzle we are faced with is neither a psychological nor an aesthetic one: it is a cultural one, and as such it is filtered through a linguistic system. We are dealing with verbal language in so far as it conveys notions about ,isual experiences, and we must, then, understand how verbal language makes the non-verbal experience recognizable, speakable and effable. To solve Aulus Gellius' puzzle, we must pass through the semiotic structure of language. As a matter of fact, colour blindness itself represents a social puzzle, difficult both to solve and to detect, because of linguistic reasons. Let me quote this important passage from Arthur Linksz, which is later commented upon by Marshall Sahlins: To suppose color terms merely name differences suggested by the visible spectrum, their function being to articulate realities necessarily and already known as such is something like the idea that genealogical relations comprise a defacto grid of "kinship types," inevitably taken in this significance by all societies, which differ merely in the way they classify (cope with) such universal facts of "relationship." The point, however, in color as in kinship, is that the terms stand in meaningful relations with other terms, and it is by the relations between terms within the global system that the character of objective reference is sedimented. Moreover, the concrete attributes thus singled out by the semantic differentiation of terms then function also as signifiers of social relations, not simply as the signifieds of the terms. In the event, it is not even



necessary that those who participate in a given natural order have the same substantive experience of the object, so long as they are capable of making some kind of sensory distinction at the semiotically pertinent boundaries. Hence the cultural facility of color blinds, functioning on differences in brightness - in a world that everyone else sees as ;· differentiated by hue. Red-and-green color-blind people talk of reds and greens and all shades of it [sic] using the same words most of us assign to objects of a certain color. They think and talk and act in terms of "object color" and "color constancy" as do the rest of us. They call leaves green, roses red.Variations in saturation and brilliance of their yellow gives [sic] them an amazing variety of impressions. While we learn to rely on differences of hue, their minds get trained in evaluating brilliance .... Most of the red-and-green blind do not know of their defect and think we see.things in the same shades they do. They have no reason for sensing any conflict. If there is an argument, they fipd us fussy, not themselves defective. They heard us call the leaves green and whatever shade leaves have for them they call green.People of average intelligence never stop to analyze their sensations.They are much too busy looking for what these sensations mean.3

Commenting on this passage in his beautiful essay on "Colors and Cultures", Sahlins not only insists on the thesis that colour is a cultural matter, but remarks that every test of colour discrimination is rooted in a sort of referential fallacy.4 Psychologists frequently assume that classifications of colours and utterance of colour names are linked to the representation of an actuaf experience; they assume that colour terms in the first instance denote the immanent properties of a sensation. Therefore, many tests are contaminated by this confusion between meaning and reference. When om: l!tters a colour tenn one is not directly pointing to a state of the world (process of reference), but, on the contrary, one is connecting or correlating that term with a cultural unit or concept. The utterance of the term is determined, obviously, by a given sensation, but the transformation of the sensory stimuli into a percept is in some way determined by the semiotic relationship b'!tween the linguistic e�'J)ression and the meaning or content culturally correlatecl to it. Our problem, to quote Sahlins again, is "how then to reconcile these two undeniable yet opposed understandings: color distinctions are naturally based, albeit that natural distinctions are culturally constituted? The dilemma can only be solved by reading from the cultural meaning of color to the empirical tests of discrimination, rather than the other way around."

3 4

Arthur Linksz, P�J•siologJ' ofthe Ere C\ew York: Grune & Stratton, 1952) vol. 2. Marshall Sahlins, "Colors and Cultures", Semiotica, vol. 15, no. 1 (1975) pp. 1, 22.




I shall begin with verbal language for practical reasons, for it represents the most p9werful and therefore the most familiar instrument people use for defining the surrounding world and for communicating to each other about it. It is not, however, impossible to imagine another sign system in which colours and other elements of the world were indicated not by words but, say, by fingers (the thumb means red, the forefinger blue, etc.). Since we have more sounds than fmgers at our disposal, we are verbal animals. But things might have gone differently: in the course of evolution we could have elaborated, instead of a very flexible phonatory apparatus, a particular skill in emitting, by chemical Even if this were the case, our analysis of semiotic means, thousands of odours. . systems would not basically change. If you look into a traditional handbook on communication, you see that such a process is represented as shown in fi gure 1.


Sender- - - - _., Message- - - - -..Addressee



Code • Figure



In order for a process of communication to be successful, a common code is the most elementary requirement. But the notion of code is still rather vague, abstract. If dealing with the Morse code, the problem is rather simple: a code is a list of equivalences by virtue of which a given array of dots and dashes is made to correspond, element to element, to a given series of alphabetic letters. A natural language is a bit more complicated. We begin with a paradigm of phonemes which do not correspond to anything at all, then these phonemes are made to constitute a repertoire of meaningful units, lexemes. Lexemes are, in tum, made to correspond, roughly speaking, to certain cultural entities: let me call them, for the moment, meanings or concepts. Of course, the situation is not this simple - there are syntactical and co-textual rules, not to mention phenomena such as homonymy, polysemy and contextual meanings. In order to make my discourse manageable for the present purpose, let me be outrageously simple and assume that in order to make communication possible, one needs a signification system. This principle holds for any sign system, from natural language to naval flag signals. A semiotic approach attempts to define the general conditions, for every system of signs, that allow processes of communication on the basis of a given system of signification. It is highly improbable to establish a communication process without an underlying signification system, whereas, theoreticallv speaking, it is not impossible to invent a signification system without using it in order to communicate - such a procedure, though, would seem a waste of time and energy.


A wry schematic signification system can he represented as follows (figure 2): Substance Content Form j Sign function -----------------1 Form





A system of general types of physical entities generates expressions: the general types are the form of the expression; their concrete and individual productions and manifestations are substances. 1'atural language, for instance, is based upon thirty or forty phonemes, organized by a phonological system establishing abstract types. We recognize these abstract types regardless of the various ways in which they are physically produced. Types, studied by phonology or phonemics, refl(esent the emic aspect of language; concrete occurrences, studied by phonetics, represent the etic aspect.\\'hat is emic involves linguistic categories, whereas etic involves concrete sounds. Phonemes are articulated to compose morphemes or - to be less technical lexical entities or words. Type-phonemes and type-lexical expressions consti­ tute a system of expression form, emically considered.The form of expression is used to convey contents, in the sense in which the sign is traditionally defined as a/iquid quid stat pro a/iquo or, as C. S.Peirce said, so.'llething which stands to somebody for something else in some respect or capacity. Units of the expression form are correlated to content units by a sign function. What is content? Not the external world. Expressions do not signify things or states of the world.At most, they are used to communicate with somebody about states of the world. If I say that ravens are black and unicorns white, I am undoubtedly uttering a statement about a state of the world. (In the first instance, I am speaking of the world of our experience, in the second I am speaking about a possible world of which unicorns are inhabitants - the fact that . they are white is part of the state of affairs of that world.) However, a term like "raven" or "unicorn" does not necessarily refer to a "thing": it refers instead to a cultural unit, to an aspect of our organization of the world. The content of a signification system depends on our cultural organization of the world into categories. By "world", I do not necessarily mean physical world: Euclid's world is not a physical one, but a possible universe organized into points, Jines, planes, angles, and so forth. It is a self-sufficient universe in which there are neither ravens nor unicorns, but only cultural units such as the concept of similitude and none such as the concept of love or justice. I can communicate about the Euclidean universe, making true or false assertions (I can, for example, assert truly that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle is equal to 180° and falsely assert that two parallel Jines can meet in a given point of that universe), but the units "triangle" and "line" are, in themselves, neither true nor false. They are simply the pertinent or relevant elements of the Euclidean


u nh·erse. T�us a signification system allows its possible users to isolate and name what is relevant to them from a giwn point of Yiew. Let us consider a classic example gi,en by many semantic handbooks: Eskimos apparently have four words to designate four types of snow, while Eu rope�ns have only one word and consider releYant only one specific state of H20 in opposition to other states like ice and water. Of course a skier can recognize different qualities of snow, but he always sees, and speaks of, the same cultural unit, considered from different points of view according to certain practical needs. Eskimos, on the other hand, see, perceive and think of four different things in the same way in which I perceiYe, and speak of, two different things when, about to skate on a lake, I ascertain whether there is water or ice. This means that a given culture organizes the world according to given practices, or practical pu�oses, and consequently considers as pertinent different aspects of the world. Pertinence is a function of our practices. According to a suggestion made by Luis Prieto,5 if I 'have on a table before me a large crystal ashtray, a paper cup and a hammer, I can organize these pieces of furniture of my limited world into a twofold system of pertinences. If my practical purpose is to collect some liquid, I then isolate a positive class whose members are the paper cup and the ashtray, and a negative class whose only member is the hammer. If, on the contrary, my purpose is to throw a missile at an enemy, then the heavy ashtray and the hammer will belong to the same class, in opposition to the light and useless paper cup. Practices select "'pertinences. The practical purpose does not, however, depend on a free decision on my part: material constraints are in play, since I cannot decide that the hammer can act as a container and the paper cup as a missile. Thus practical purposes, decisions about pertinences and material constraints will interact in leading a culture to segment the continuum of its own experience into a given form of the conten�. To say that a signification system makes communication processes possible means that one can usually communicate only about those cultural units that a given signification system has made pertinent. It is, then, reasonable to suppose now that one can better perceive that which a signification system has isolated and outlined as pertinent. Let us imagine an archaic community which has only two terms to designate every possible kind of human being: a term equivalent to "man" and a term like "barbarian" or "alien". The members of the community have two cultural units at their disposal: for them, the many-coloured universe of featherless two-legged mammals (among which we might distinguish black and Chinese, Dane and Dutch, European and American, East and West German) is a black and white universe split into "us" and "the others". Let us for the moment disregard the fact that further properties can be associated to these cultural units, namely that "men" are rational and friendly, while "barbarians" are stupid, irrational and dangerous.The problem of the organization of content is, of course, more complicated than this, and from the perspective of 5

Luis Prieto, Pertinence et pratique (Paris: Minuit, 1975).


contemporary compositional analysis, what I called cultural units are more finely subdivided into a network of minor semantic properties. Yet even when we limit the domain of semiotic problems to be discussed, our fictional community retains a note of verisimilitude. The ancient Greek subdivision of humankind into Hellenes and "oi barbaroi" is more or less similar to mv fittional model, as is the Nazi reorganization of humankind into Aryans and "inferior races". Imagine a "sci-fi" situation in which our planet is invaded by monsters from two different galaxies. The aliens of Galaxy no. 1 are round, greenish and have three legs and four eyes; the aliens of Galaxy no. 2 are elongated, brown and have six legs and one eye. Certainly we would be able to distinguish and deseribe both species, but as far as our defence is concerned, the aliens are all "non-human". When the men of the terrestrial outpost first encounter the alien avant-garde, they will probably perceive and signal those they meet as simply aliens or monsters. Before we forge new terms to define their differences, we would need scientific interaction, and at some point we would enrich and reformulate our content form. But without such a collective reshaping of our content system, our very ability to recognize aliens will be strongly influenced bv our cultural categories. In the same way, for the members of our fictional ancient society, it will be difficult to ascertain the difference between a Viking and a Phoenician, as well as the difference between their languages: at first they will all be "barbaroi" , speaking a non-language. Eventually, at _a more advanced stage of inter-racial contact, someone will discover that Vikings are more aggressive and Phoenicians more eager to entertain commercial relationships, thus facilitating the reformulation of the content, the discovery of new pertinences, and the invention_ of new expressions to designate these pertinences. A sort of underlying discriminative ability will lead to a more refined system of identification and categorization. But in the early stages of contact, categoriz­ ation will overcome discrimination. At this point, l must introduce a new concept, the opposition between restricted and elaborated code. In a further stage of inter-racial contacts, our fictional society could split into two castes. Priests and merchants will be able to distinguish Vikings from Phoenicians, probably for different purposes (mer­ chants because they are interested in dealing with the Phoenicians, and priests because they suppose that Vikings can be easily converted). These two castes will reorganize their content form, and coin new expressions to name these different cultural units. But the rest of the citizenry, in order to be employed as warriors, will still share a more restricted code; for them, "men" versus "barbarians" will remain the only pertinent opposition. Thus at the same moment in the same society there will be two different levels of social organization; therefore there will be two different ways of thinking, perceiving and speaking, based upon two different systems of signification or, better, upon two different stages of complexity of the same system. As the Italian playwright Dario Fo once said: the worker knows a hundred words, his master a thousand


- that is why he is the master. To know more words means to conceive of a more refined organization of the content. \\ben our instinctive tendency to discriminate produces a more subtle categorization, we acquire a more powerful world view. In the course of this improvement, one changes one's codes. ' . Of course, such a passage from restricted to elaborated code happens not only infra-culturally but inter-culturally as well, and in space as well as time. Take the rodent universe. In Latin there is only one name to indicate two different kinds of animal that the English call, rcspectiYely, "mouse" and "rat" • (figure 3). Latin



. . . . . . . . . . ., .

:'\1ouse Rat

Figure 3

In Italian, we have two names, "topo" and "rano", but many Italians today confuse the terms, using "topo" for both animals. This linguistic simplification deters them from paying attention to the morphological differences between a "little mouse" and a "big one" - an attitude that can produce a number of · sanitary and social consequences. Thus it is possible to say that the Latin term mus (and perhaps topo today) referred to a sort of homogeneous pertinent portion of the content, while the English names "mouse" and "rat" refer to two different pertinent units (figure 4): Latin:




mouse rat



Figure 4

The organization of content has to do with the empty cases I have filled up with variables. The important semiotic problem here is how to describe the content of these empty cases, as we are obliged to analyse them through other expressions - in their tum having to be analysed by other expressions, and so on ad infinitum. I return to the problem of colour and to the page of Aulus Gellius I mentioned earlier; the problem of the categorization of colours involves such empty cases.

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III Perception occupies a puzzling position, somewhere midway between semiotic categorization and discrimination based upon mere sensory processes. Jean Petitot, who is working on the material roots of linguistic categorization based upon the mathematical theory of catastrophes, suggested to me that categoriz­ ation llhd discrimination do not interact in the universe of sounds as thev do in the universe of colours.6 We can, it seems, identify sounds with remarkable precision, but once we have perceived the emic difference between, say, pa and ba, we have difficulty in discriminating between the different etic ways in which pa and ba can be pronounced. Petitot suggests that this ability to categorize sounds is not culturally but innately grounded, and postulates a brain mechanism called "perceptual categorization" which would explain why verbal language is such a paramount semiotic system. Such an innate ability in sound identification, and such a difficulty in sound discrimination, are crucial for human language. It is important that we can identify the thirty or forty phonemes which constitute the phonological paradigm of a given language, but it would be embarrassing (linguistically speaking) to be exaggeratedly sensitive to minimal individual differences between the etic ways of uttering the same phoneme. That is why, were I speaking, you could understand your native language even though many of you would be able to guess that I was not nurtured at Oxford. Your ability to discriminate accents has nothing to do with your etic competence - at most it has to do . with paralinguistics or tonemics, which are entirely different. The more you were to focus your attention on my sounds, thinking of them as phonemes of your native tongue, the more you would be recognizing them emically, independently of the accent; you would forget the accent and directly catch phonological categories. Of course there are individuals specially trained in discriminating tonemes (that is, the subtle nuances in the etic production of sounds), such as actors or social workers interested in people's national or regional origins. But theirs is an etic training which has nothing to do with the emic training connected with the acquisition of a language as an abstract type. Our discrimination ability for colours seems to be greater: we can detect the fact that hues gradually change in the continuum of a rainbow, though we have no means to categorize the borderlines between different colours.Nevertheless, when a given subject is exposed to a continuum of sounds ranging from the syllable ba to the syllable pa, uttered in many etic ways, "k" will be the 6

J ean Petitot, work in progress (personal communication), with references to the work of A. Liberman, N. Studdart-Kennedy, K. Stevens (on perception of the speech code), Eimas, Massaro and Pisoni (on selective adaptation and features detectors), Eimas and Mehler (on innate bases of categorial perception).


"catastrophic point", where so-called feature detectors in the human brain isolate the threshold between two emic categories:


ba.............................. pa Figure 5

Our innate capacity for perceptual categorization enables a subject to perceiYe a clear opposition between the two emic entities, ba and pa, and disregard etic discrimination. But if the same subject is intensiYely e:\-posed to the stimulus ba, the catastrophe point will slip to the left when he is once again intensiYely c:\-posed to the full range of sounds represented in fi gure 5. This phenomenon is called "selective adaptation" : the subject will acquire a quite seYere notion of y the emic type ba (and, probably, a snobbish sensitiYit to accents). opposite happens with colours. Let us consider two colours, a and b, e Th which are mutually adjacent in the spectrum. If the stimulus a is repeated, the catastrophe point will slip to the right rather than to the left. This means that the more a subject becomes acquainted with a stimulus, the more eager he will be to assign similar stimuli to the category to which he has assigned the original stimulus. Categorial training produces categorization ability for both sounds and colours; but sound categories become more restricted, while colour categories become more tolerant, and sensitiYity in discrimination decreases. Of course a painter can be trained more in etic discrimination than in emic categorization, but in the ell.-periments aboYe, the reaction of the subject is determined by the fact that he is not freely concerned with sense data, but is influenced by the aims of the laboratory ell.-periment. He is encouraged to isolate categorial entities and reacts with categories already defined by language, eYen though he speaks only to himself. These experiences have nothing to do with what I previously said about sign functions: to perceive phonemes or colours has to do with the emic analysis of expressions, not with the correlation between e:\-pressions and contents. But I smell in these ell.'J)eriences the presence of a more complicated semiotic question. IV

It has been said that colour discrimination, under laboratory conditions, is probably the same for all peoples no maner what langu age the)' speak, though psychologists also suggest that there is not only an ontogenetic but also a phylogenetic increase in discriminatory competence. The Optical Society of America classifies a range of between 7. 5 and 1 o million colours which can theoretically be discriminated. A trained artist can discriminate and name a great many hues, which the _ pigment industry supplies and indicates with numbers, to indicate an immense variety of colours easily discriminated in the industry. But the Farnsworth-

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Munsell test, which includes 1 oo hues, demonstrates that the average discrimination rate is highly unsatisfactory.Not only do the majority of subjects have no linguistic means with which to categorize these 1 oo hues, but approximately 68 per cent of the population (excluding colour defectives) make a 'total error score of between 20 and 1 00 on the first test, which involves rearranging these hues on a continuous gradation scale. Cases of superior discrimination (only 1 6 per cent) scored from zero to 1 6. The largest collection of English colour names runs to over 3000 entries (Maerz and Paul),7 but only eight of these commonly occur (Thorndike and Lorge). 8 Thus average chromatic competence is better represented by the seven colours of the rainbow, with their corresponding wavelengths in millimicrons (figure 6): Average chromatic competence Red Orange

[8oer-650 64er-590


[ s 8erss o


[ 54er-490 480-460 [450-440 430-390

Figure 6

Blue Indigo Violet

Square brackets indicate the thresholds where, according to modem experi­ ments, there are clear jumps in discrimination.This segmentation does seem to correspond to our common experience, though it was not the experience of Latin speakers, if indeed it is true that they did not clearly distinguish between green and blue. It seems that Russian speakers segment the range of wavelengths we call "blue" into different portions, goluboj and sinij. Hindus consider red and orange a unified pertinent unit. And against the 3000 hues that, according to David Katz,9 the Maori of New Zealand recognize and name by 3000 different terms, there are, according to Conklin, the Hanun6o of the Philippines, with a peculiar opposition between a public restricted code and more or less individual, elaborated ones: Color distinctions in Hanun6o are made at two levels of contrast. The first, higher, more general level consists of an all-inclusive coordinate,

A.Maerz and R. Paul, A Dictiona,)' of Color (New York: Crowell, 1953). E. L.Thorndike and I. Lorge, The Teacher's Word Book r!f30,000 Words (l'iew York : Columbia University Press, 1962). 9 David and Rose Katz, Handbuch der Ps)'chologie (Basel: Schwabe, 1960) vol. 2. 7




four-way classification which lies at the core of the color system. The four categories are mutually exclusiw in contrastive contexts, but may overlap slightly in absolute (i.e., spectrally) or in other measureable terms. The second level, including several sublevels, consists of hundreds of specific color ;· categories, many of which overlap and interdigitate. Terminologically, there is "unanimous agreement" (Lenneberg, 1 953, p. 469 ) on the designations for the four Level I categories, but considerable lack of unanimity - with a few e:\.'])lainable exceptions - in the use of terms of Level 11. 1 0

Let us disregard Level II, which seems a case of many elaborated codes differing from males to females and even from individual to individual. Let us consider the various formats of Level II as idiolectal and quasi-professional codes. The three-dimensional color solid is divided by this Level I categorization into four unequal parts; the largest is mabi:ru, the smallest malatu;• [see figure 7]. While boundaries separating these categories cannot be set in absolute terms, the focal points (differing slightly in size, themselves) within the four sections, can be limited more or less to black, white, orange-red, and leaf-green respectively. In general terms, mabi:ru includes the range usually covered in English by black, violet, indigo, blue, dark green, gray, and deep shades of other colors and mixtures; malagti, white and very light tints of other colors and mixtures; marara, maroon, red, orange, yellow, and mi:\.tures in which these qualities are seen to predominate; malatuy, light green and mixtures of green, yellow, and light brown. All color terms can be reduced to one of these four, but none of the four is reducible. This does not mean that other color terms are synonyms, but that they designate color categories of greater specification within four recognized color realms. 1 1

Hanun6o segmentation follows our basic English paradigm only to a limited extent, since it involves black, white and grey in different ways. What is important for our present study is that the pertinentization of the spectrum depends on symbolic, i.e. cultural principles. Note that these cultural pertinentizations are produced because of practical purposes, according to the material needs of the Hanun6o community.


The basis of this Level I classification appears to have certain correlates beyond what is usually considered the range of chromatic differentiation, and which are associated with linguistic phenomena in the external environment. First, there is the opposition between light and dark, obvious in the contrast of ranges of meaning of lagti and biru. Second, there is an

Harold C. Conklin, "Hanun6o Color Categori es", Southwestern Journal ofAnthro-

pology, vol. II (1955 ) pp. 339-44; see p. 34 1 .

1 1 Ibid.,

pp. 34 1-2.


oppos1t1on between dryness or desiccation and wetness or freshness (succulence) in visible components of the natural environment which are reflected in the terms rara and latuy respectively. This distinction is of particular significance in terms of plant life.Almost all living plant types possess some fresh, succulent and often "greenish" parts.To eat any kind of raw, uncooked food, particularly fresh fruit or vegetables, is known as sag-laty-un (/atuy). A shiny, wet, brown-colored section of newly cut bamboo is malatuy not marara. Dried-out or matured plant material such as certain kinds of yellowed bamboo or hardened kernels of mature or parched com are marara. To become desiccated, to lose all moisture, is known as mamara < para "desiccation." A third opposition, dividing the two already suggested, is that of deep, unfading, indelible, and hence often more desired material as against pale, weak, faded, bleached, o r "colorless" substance, a distinction contrasting mabi:ru and marara with malagti and malatuy. 1 2 . .


Spectral opposition






Weak Intensity opposition


Figure 7

We have then a system of cultural units - lightness, darkness, wetness, dryness - which are expressed by four fundamental colours; these colours are, in tum, four cultural units expressed by four linguistic terms. This double organization of the content depends, as does any organization of this kind, on a system of disjunctions: it represents a structure.Just as a "mouse", within a semantic space concerning rodents, is everything which is not a "rat", and vice versa, so the pertinent content space of malatuy is determined by its northem borderline beyond which there is marara, and its southern borderline, below which there is mabi:ru. Geopolitically speaking, Holland is a negative concept: it is the class of all 12

Ibid., p . 342.

HOW CCLTLTRE co;-.;rJITJO;-.;s THE COLOl'RS \',E SElain the contradictions in his analysis and the chromatic uneasiness felt by the modem reader. His colour-show is not a coherent one: we seem to be watching a flickering TV screen, with something wrong in the electronic circuits, where tints mix up and the same face shifts, in the space of a few seconds, from yellow to orange or green. Determined by his cultural information, Gellius cannot trust to his personal perceptions, if any, and appears eager to see gold as red as fire, and saffron as yellow as the greenish shade of a blue horse. We do not know and we shall neYer know how Gellius really perceived his Vmwelt; unfortunately, our only evidence of what he saw and thought is what he said. I suspect that he was prisoner of his cultural mish-mash. - - Yet it also seems to me (but obYiously this h)J>Othesis should be tested on more texts) that Latin poets were less sensitive to clear-cut spectral oppositions or gradations, and more sensitive to slight mixtures of spectrally distant hues. In . other words, they were not interested in pigments but in perceptual effects due to the combined action of light, surfaces, the nature and purposes of objects. Thus a sword can be fufoa as jasper because the poet sees the red of the blood it may spill. That is why such descriptions remind us more of certain paintings of Marc or of the early Kandinsky than of a scientific chromatic polyhedron. A... a decadent man of culture, Gellius tends to interpret poetic creativity and .,.--- irr,cntion as a socially accepted code and is not interested in the relationships - "'1lich colours had with other content oppositions in different cultural systems. It would be interesting to transform a given Latin chromatic system, that of t


r ·I

Average English














Marara (dry)








I Figure 8

l I I

\ I

�� I. -� � .. .!S I �


Malatuy (fresh)

I \ I


Hanun6o Level 1


450-440 430-390


Mabi:ru 1 (rotten) I I



jl i


,�,� I


:s� I a

I�:j I

Hanun6o Level 2

1 73


Virgil for example, into a structure more or less like the one I proposed for the Hanun6o system, where the names of hues must be associated to opposition between dark and light (also in psychological and moral sense), euphoric and dvsphoric, excitation and calm, and so on. The names of colours, taken in {hemselv�!;,, have no precise chromatic content: they must be viewed within the general context of many interacting semiotic systems.


Are we, in any sense; freer than Gellius from the armour of our culture? We arc animals who can discriminate colours, but we are, above all, cultural animals. Human societies do not only speak of colours, but also with colours. We frequently use colours as semiotic devices: we communicate with flags, traffic lights, road signs, various kinds of emblems. Now a socio-semiotic study of national flags 1 3 remarks that national flags make use of only seven colours: red, blue, green, yellow, orange, black and white. For physical reasons, the proportion of these colours is as follows: Colour combinations

Red/white/blue Red/white Red/yellowIgreen Red/white/green Red/white/green/black Blue/white Red/yellow/blue

Per cent

1 6.8

9 .5 7.3

6.6 6.6



58.6 Orange, hardly distinguishable from red, is rarely used. What counts in the perception of a flag is categorization, not discrimination. If we were to look up the flags of the Scandinavian countries, we would realize that the blue of the Swedish · and Finnish flags (which is light) is different from the blue of the Icelandic and Norwegian ones (which is dark). Now look at Sweden's yellow cross on a light blue field - there is not a flag in the world with a yellow cross on a dark blue background, and for good reason. Everyone would recognize such a flag as the symbol for Sweden. (And, thinking of Norway's dark blue cross on a red field, a flag with a light blue cross on red would similarly be recognized as Norway's symbol.) In national flags, categorization overwhelms discrimination. n Sasha R. Weitman, "National Flags ", Semiotica, vol. 8, no. 4 (1 973) pp. 328-67.

UMBERTO ECO 174 This simplification exists not only for reasons of easier perception: such "easier perception" is supported by a preYious cultural coding by virtue of which certain colours form a clear-cut system of oppositional units which are, in tum, clearly correlated with another system concerning values or abstract ideas. , . In the study on national flags I have been referring to, it is interesting to check the symbolic values assigned by different countries to the same colour. Red, for example, symbolizes bravery, blood and courage in many countries (Afghanistan, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Burundi, Chile, Ecuador, etc.), but it also represents animals in Bolivia, faith in Ethiopia, soil in Dahomey. White, almost universally, stands for peace, hope and purity, but in Congo Kinshasha, hope is represented by blue which, for the majority of countries, stands for sky, sea and rivers. The colours of national flags are not colours: physical pigments; they are expressions correlated to cultural units, and as such are strongly categorized. But the real problem is not - or not only - that our discrimination ability is limited to few colours. It is that the system of basic values to be ex-pressed by colours is a limited one. The nature of these values (hope, peace, and so on) is irrelevant: what counts is the structural architecture of their basic oppositions, which must be clear. One should remark that a greater variety of colours exists, or existed, in heraldry . But heraldry represents a case of an elaborated code for a cultivated minority able to discriminate more colours and associate more refined names to different hues, as well as memorize numerous aristocratic stocks. The same strong categorization is at work in traffic lights and road signals. A traffic light can work and transmit its orders irrespective of the shade of green, red or yellow that, in terms of wavelengths, it emits. One would certainly stop at a traffic light with an orange light on, and continue moving even though the green light were a shade of blue. (Note that in the traffic light code, the signification of colours is reinforced by the position of the lights, which reduces the relevance of hues - and helps the colour-blind.) In any case, here too, in traffic regulation, people can only recognize a limited system of obligations. I do not think it is possible to found a system of communication on a subtle discrimination between colours too close to each other in the spectrum. This may seem strange since, as I have said, we potentially have a great capacity for discrimination, and with ten million colours it would be interesting to compose a language more rich and powerful than the verbal one, based as it is upon no more than forty phonemes. But the phonemes of verbal language are, in fact, a reasonable reduction of the great variety of possible sounds that our phonatory apparatus can produce. The seven colours of flags and signals are probably the most a human culture can recognize - by a general agreement as to categorizable expressive entities. This agreement has come about, probably, because verbal language has shaped our average sensitivity according to the macroscopic segmentation represented by the seven colours of the rainbow which is a Western conventional way of segmentation. The agreement has also come about because average verbal language, with its polysemy, works better for common people when many names stand synonymously for few basic concepts,


1 75

rath er than the opposite, when few names stand homonymously for thousands of concepts. The fact that a painter (think of Paul �lee) can recognize and name more colours, the fact that verbal language itself is able not only to designate hundreds of nuances, but also describe unheard-of tints by examples, periphrases and poetic ingenuity - all this represents a series of cases of elaborated codes. It is common to every society to have members able to escape the determination of the rules, to propose new rules, to behave beyond the rules. In everyday life, our reactivity to colour demonstrates a sort of inner and profound solidarity between semiotic systems . Just as language is determined by the way in which society sets up systems of values, things and ideas, so our chromatic perception is determined by language. You may look up your flags again: suppose there is a football match between Italy and Holland. One will distinguish the Dutch flag from the Italian one, even tho�gh the red of either of them, or of both, were looking orange. If, on the contrary, the match were between Italy and Ireland, the Italian flag would be characterized by a dark red, since white, green and orange are the Irish colours. If one wants to oppose, for shorthand purposes, a Mondrian to a Kandinsky, Mondrian would be recognizable even though its reds were more or less orange, but in the course of an aesthetic discourse on Mondrian, and in judging the correctness of an art book's reproduction, one should spend much careful analysis in discriminating the better and more faithful colour among Mondrian reproductions. Thus the artistic activity, be it the poetry of Virgil or the research on pigments by Mondrian, works against social codes and collective categorization, in order to produce a more refined social consciousness of our cultural way of defining contents. Ifpeople are eager to fight for a red, white and blue flag, then people must be ready to die even though its red, due to the action of atmospheric factors, has become pinkish. Only artists are ready to spend their lives imagining (to quote -James Joyce) "an opening flower breaking in full crimson and unfolding and fading to palest rose, leaf by leaf and wave of light by wave of light, flooding all the heavens with its soft flushes, every flush deeper than the other".