Over several decades, researchers in the sciences have studied human color perception.  Much of the research presented in this article is based on the idea that color perception is based on language. Research done by Emre Özgen, in his paper Language, Learning and Color Perspective, suggests that the language of an individual affects their color perception. His theory is based on comparisons between African, English and Turkish languages.  Özgen’s research harkens to a study by Berlin and Kay (1969), which suggests that English has 11 different colors while other languages have as few as five color separations. Similar studies ask how color perception differs across cultures.

Linguistic Relativism

Linguists such as Noam Chomsky, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Edward Sapir have suggested that there is a relativity to language and speakers of languages relate to their realities differently from each other. These differences in language directly lead to important differences in the experience of the world and the mental processes of thought. Under the idea of linguistic relativism, it is held that languages construct a speaker’s reality and differences in languages make for unreconcilable differences in reasoning.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is a central idea in the field of linguistics, essentially embodies the idea of linguistic relativism. The hypothesis supports the above statements about the relationship of language to perception, but radically speaking, the hypothesis suggests that human beings use language to construct the means by which they relate to reality. Sapir states in his studies that “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society” (Swoyer). Sapir’s statements suggest that without language, humans’ ability to express and relate to and about their surrounding realities would be highly compromised.

That being said, linguistic relativity is a natural way of explaining the differences in color perception in speakers of different languages. Linguists (including Özgen) have studied languages and their distinctions between colors and determined that some languages draw linguistic lines between colors differently. Some languages discern only between white and black, while others add more. Statistically, there appears to be a pattern to how color distinctions are added:

  • Stage 1: Distinctions between black and white only
  • Stage 2: Red is added to the distinctions
  • Stage 3: Either green or yellow is added
  • Stage 4: Both green and yellow are added in addition to red, black, and white
  • Stage 5: Blue is added, for a total of 6 distinctions
  • Stage 6: Brown is added for a total of 7 distinctions
  • Stage 7: At this point, a full array of the 11 natural distinctions of color occurs, including orange, purple, pink, and grey as compared to stage 6

As this model suggests, the distinctions between color that occur based on language completely exclude some linguistic color distinctions. Language directly affects cultures’ perceptions of the reality, in this case based on color. It is worth noting that a wide margin of languages operate under stage 7 (Color Words).

Color Perspective between Language and Cultures

The color perspective varies greatly between cultures and language. An example of this can be seen in the state flags of the United States. Deborah T. Sharpe (The Psychology of Color and Design) says that the flags of the Northern states reflect the ideals of the Puritans with blues and greens, while the southern states have more reds and yellows of the cavalier states (Sharpe 35). Another example of the color perspective is differences in color of mourning. Sharpe has stated,

Purple, the traditional color of mourning among many peoples, meets disapproval in six Asian countries. Iran, predominately Arab state, disapproves of gold and yellow, while countries like India, Ceylon, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, predominantly Hindus and Buddhists, prefer gold and yellow. Green is not disapproved of in any Arab country, and is preferred over all other colors in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Sudan, and Jordan (Sharpe 50).

This suggests that religion plays a huge part in color preference between different peoples. Also, color preference is affected by politics, war, and climate. Many individuals from hot climates prefer light colors while others from cooler climates prefer darker colors. But, another aspect that affects the color preference and perspective is language.  Özgen cites a study between English and Berinmo, a spoken language in Papua New Guinea. Berinmo has just five basic color terms, unlike English, which has 11 basic color terms. This shows that there are many different interpretations of a color based on the language.

Applications in Technical Writing

The ideas behind the perception of color can be easily applied in the field of rhetoric and technical writing. Color can be an immediately engaging aspect of document design — aesthetic choices are eye-catching and the connotations of color are important to understand in formulating a document for a particular audience. Color schemes help to convey moods and trigger psychological reactions, for better or worse, in readers. Choosing whether to print in black and white, single-color schemes, multi-color schemes, or full-color (to accommodate graphics and illustrations) is a choice writers have to make based on the applications of their work. Color can be leveraged to express purpose at a glance — certain colors convey feelings of urgency or anger, and others convey feelings of calm or sterility. Rhetoricians who understand these qualities of color can use the colors with which their documents are printed to do some of the rhetorical work that their writing might normally do, to ingrain an understanding of purpose in and alter the predisposed mindset of their readers.

Linguistic handling of color is much more abstract. The differences in color perception of languages are a human factor worth noting, for writers and rhetoricians, but much of the time languages with more limited color terms are not utilized in the realm of rhetoric or professional writing. Nonetheless, the linguistic ramifications of discussing color need to be considered. Knowledge of linguistic ties to psychological perceptions is still highly studied and debated, but language choices even beyond just the realm of color play a key role in allowing the audience of a technical document to adequately psychologically relate. Because language enables humans to interact and refer to their reality, it is important that an author use language to relate a reality broad enough to allow a wide enough audience to engage with it.