Podcast S2 E6 | 30 min

Are Colors Universal?

8 Oct 2019
How do language, biology, and culture shape an individual’s experience of color? A journalist investigates the anthropological debate about whether color is a human universal.

Remember the meme #TheDress? Was it white and gold, or blue and black? With the help of Nicola Jones, a freelance science journalist who writes for Nature and SAPIENS, host Jen Shannon explores the question of color perception to find answers. She learns about the book The World Color Survey, an Amazonian tribe in Peru whose language has no color words, and the biology of the human eye.

Nicola Jones is a science reporter and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @nicolakimjones.

Simon Overall is a linguist and guest lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Follow him on Twitter @ginsengburger.

For more on the debate about color perception, read Jones’ article at SAPIENS: “Do You See What I See?

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen: A few months ago, I invited Chip into the studio for an experiment.

[studio rustling sounds, Chip and Jen get settled]

[Jen plays audio]




Chip: Jen, what was that?

Jen: What do you think it was?

Chip: It sounds like some kind of weird robot voice saying the word “Yanny.”

Jen: OK, so let me turn a dial here, and this is the same exact recording. But, what do you hear now?




Chip: Uh, actually, yeah, that sounded basically the same to me.

Jen: Really? OK, well, for me, I hear “Laurel”! Same clip.

Chip: What?!

Jen: Yeah! But, we each have a completely different experience hearing them. All I did was change the frequency of the clip. How incredible is that?

Chip: That is definitely incredible. But are you really sure you heard “Laurel”? I did not hear that at all.

Jen: No, I totally did.

Chip: Oh my gosh, OK.

Jen: But just think: There are probably loads of instances where this is the case. It’s like, we could both be walking down the street, side by side, and smell food cooking inside some restaurant. And for me, it might smell like one thing, but for you, it might smell like something totally different! So how can we really know what it actually smells like? Or what anything smells like? Or looks like? Or sounds like? Or feels like? How can we ever really know if you smell what I smell? If you taste what I taste? If you see what I see?

Chip: Before we go too deep down this rabbit hole, let’s bring some more ears to this. So, listeners, what do you hear: “Laurel” or “Yanny”? We’re going to post the clip to our Facebook and our Twitter. Comment and let us know what you hear.

Jen: Yeah! Let us know, are you Team Yanny or Team Laurel?

Chip: In the meantime, let’s see what we can find out about how universal our sensory experiences are. And it just so happens that the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where I work, has an exhibit about this. It’s called Our Senses: Creating Your Reality.

Chip: What do you think, should we go?

Jen: I think we should definitely go.

Jen: I’m Jen.

Chip: I’m Chip.

Jen: And we’re the hosts of SAPIENS, a Podcast for Everything Human.

[SAPIENS intro]

Annie: Are you all having a nice time at the exhibit today?

Crowd: Yes!

Annie: Perfect. I’ll write that down for my notes. My name is Annie …

Jen: Chip brought along his daughter, Mina, and the three of us walked from room to room, testing our senses. There were little boxes containing smells that you had to guess, and rooms checkered with lines that confused our depth perception. But the first thing that really caught our eyes was a light projection that asked us to rank colors and shapes by what appeared first to each of us.

Jen at the museum: I mean, sorry, red is easiest, green is in the middle, and blue is the hardest.

Jen: Around every corner, we all saw colors and smelled smells a little differently.

Mina at the museum: No, green is the easiest, and red is the medium, and purple is kinda the hardest, and then kinda blue in the middle of purple is the hardest.

Jen: But there was one thing, right at the end, that we experienced completely the same.

Jen at the museum: This is obvious to me that it is blue and black.

Mina at the museum: Black!

Chip at the museum: Yeah, I’m also seeing blue and black, just no question.

Jen: Yep, at the very end of our tour it was—

Spectator: —“the dress” from the internet!

Jen: That’s right, the dress, literally known as “the dress.” Today if you type #thedress into your web browser, a slew of articles emerges from February 2015. They each show a photo of a dress that famously may look gold and white, or blue and black. As you scroll down the search results, there are more articles from 2016, 2017, 2018, even earlier this year. People keep coming back to this dress, asking the question, Why do we all see this so differently? But standing before it in real life, surrounded by clusters of people pointing and taking photos, there was absolutely no question what color it was.

Person: All of my friends were like, “No, you’re wrong.” And I’m adamant that it was, and I’m looking at it right now—

Person: It’s blue, it’s clearly blue.

Person: I mean, I’m looking at it now, and I was correct.

Person: Right, but you’re also colorblind and very incorrect about color.

Person: After I saw it in gold and white, I never saw it in blue and black until now.

Person: It’s just a dress!

Person: I think people get a little crazy on the internet.

Jen: As I was staring at the dress, I had an idea, and it was actually inspired by a recent article I read on SAPIENS.org. The author, Nicola Jones, wrote about a tribe in the Amazon who doesn’t have words for color. Instead, this community describes what they see by comparing it with other physical objects around them. I wanted to give it a try, so I asked some of the people at the exhibit:

Jen at the museum: If you didn’t have a name for blue and couldn’t use the word “color,” how would you describe the dress? 

Person: That is one of the more difficult things to do. We have been trained all our lives to use those terms to describe these things. Probably “dark” because it tends to eat up the light of around it.

Person: Can I use the word “color”? No? OK, um, all right. 

Person: Cheap. 

Person: Imposing.

Person: I would say, the sky before the sun goes down. 

Person: Unwelcoming. 

Person: And the sky when the sun is completely down and the moon is out. 

Person: Cool. 

Chip at the museum: So, to the touch? 

Person: I have no idea.

Jen: This made me think about how the question, Do you see what I see? is actually way more complicated than we think. Like, not only are we asking whether our physical experience of the world is the same but also whether the words we use to describe that experience mean the same thing to each of us. To learn more about it all, I decided to call up Nicola Jones, the author of that SAPIENS.org article I mentioned earlier. And, of course, I started with the dress.

Jen: I was wondering if we could talk about the dress, you know, #thedress! We just saw it at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. I was really inspired by the article you wrote in SAPIENS.org, so we tried something out while we were standing in front of that dress. We had people describe the color of the dress without using any actual words for color. So how do you think that went?

Nicola: [laughs] I imagine that was pretty funny. I imagine people were completely at a loss. Did they know what to say?

Jen: There were definitely long pauses as they struggled to find the words. And sometimes people would say “color,” “dark color,” “light color,” but when we pushed them, yeah, it took some time, and they related it to things in the natural world.

Nicola: Right. Maybe you could say how it made you feel, like, “It makes me feel cheerful,” or “It makes me feel sad.”

Jen: Or, we had one comment, “It looks cheap,” which wasn’t about the color at all, right?

Nicola: [laughs] Right, yeah. No, I think it would be really hard to do that. But, of course, you know there are some cultures that are thought to do just that—to not talk about color. 

Nicola: In Peru, for example, there is a group called the Candoshi, and they definitely don’t have the word “color”—like, that actual word—in their language.  

So, this is a tribe of about 3,000 people living on the banks of the Amazon River, and they have, you know, what most people call a kind of colorful life. They apparently spend a lot of time making dyes and pigments for face paints or pottery, and they wear crowns made of colorful bird feathers. And, I haven’t been there, but when an anthropologist named Alexandre Surrallés studied this group, he found they had no consistent vocabulary for describing those colors. So, he couldn’t ask them: What color is this crown? or What color is this feather? Instead, he would ask them things like: What is this like? or How is this? And if it was, say, red, they might answer, “It’s like ripe fruit,” or “It’s like blood.” So, it kind of encodes the concept of color, but it just wasn’t built into their vocabulary like it is into ours, and maybe it’s not built into how they see the world either.

Jen: Hold on. Wait. Let’s pause there for a second. So, he thought that because the Candoshi don’t have distinct, separate words for color—like red or green—that maybe they don’t see the world the way that others see it?

Nicola: Right. Well, so a lot of people think that language is a real window into how we think about all sorts of things. In some ways, it’s our only window, right, because we have no way of knowing what’s going on in your brain unless you can express that. And the way we express that is through words. So, there are a lot of people who study language and what it reveals about how we think.

Jen: Are there specific examples that might help us understand this?

Nicola: So, I haven’t studied these other things, but I’ve heard that there are languages where they have, maybe, no past tense or no future tense, and maybe that reveals something different about how people think about the flow of time. Or the word “zero” wasn’t invented until surprisingly recently, which might mean that the concept of having stuff is more important than the concept of not having stuff. So, maybe color also isn’t something that everyone thinks about.

Some people argue that it’s only really important in an industrial society, where you have copies of things that are identical except for color. So, like, T-shirts that are the same except one is red and one is blue, and then you really need color to distinguish them. And that doesn’t really happen in the natural world. So, it’s really debatable how different people might think about these things.

Jen: So, language is a window into how we think … about time, stuff, color. And that’s why people want to study the words that we use to describe what we see. But where did the origin of this research actually start?

Nicola: Right. So the story as I was told it was that in sort of the 1950s or before, the general theory was that, you know, look, there is nothing “real” about colors; we just make up words to describe them. But there’s not, like, you know, when you look at a rainbow, there aren’t actual sort of lines between red and orange and yellow and green. We just decided as a society that we would sort of lump that bit of the spectrum together and give it a word and call it red. So, the general theory was, well, there’s no reason why we do it that way, so surely everyone does it in different ways. But then in the 1960s, there were these anthropologists Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, and they were studying totally different people. One of them was studying Tahitians in the South Pacific. One of them was studying a group of people in Mexico, and they found that actually, they kind of did have the same basic colors in their languages as we do in English.

Jen: After speaking with Nicola, I actually looked into this further. When Paul Kay and Brent Berlin returned from their research and compared their findings, they were pretty surprised by this coincidence. Why did these two very separate cultures, living in very separate parts of the world, lump colors together in the same way? And what’s more, they lump together colors in the same way we do in English.

Kay and Berlin knew that they just had to investigate things further. So, they surveyed speakers of about 20 languages spoken in the San Francisco Bay Area. And the results were actually consistent with their initial findings. And this was a pretty new idea in the field of color research at the time, so it drew some criticism. If they were going to make a good case that there is a universal human experience in perceiving color, they were going to need a bigger sample size.

Nicola: They enlisted missionaries to examine more than 100 languages all around the world and to show people who speak these languages more than, like, 300 colors to find the smallest set of simple words with which the speaker could name any color. So, they had this massive survey, and they concluded that there are similarities in basic color definitions across all of those different languages, including the Candoshi, by the way.

Jen: So, you’re saying that even the Candoshi, as in the tribe that supposedly doesn’t have words for color, had basic color definitions.

Nicola: Yeah. So, the result of this survey was that, and their argument is, is that all cultures have a word for black or white. And if there’s a third color term in the language, it’s for red. If there’s a fourth, it’s for yellow or green. And if a fifth, then the other color of those and then blue, and then, at the highest stage, they said, you have languages like English and also Japanese and German that have 11 basic color terms. So those are black, white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, and brown.

Jen: Wow, so, what they’re saying is that everyone kind of develops these colors in a pattern, like, a set pattern. In other words, you go through the first three before you get to, say, blue or something beyond.

Nicola: Yeah, there were kind of two main ideas in that survey. And the first was that there’s this kind of universal experience of color that we all tend to express in a very similar way. And the other thing is that there’s this kind of, as you say, a sort of evolution in development of color language, but both of those things are controversial.

Jen: If we think the internet dress debate got heated, it’s nothing compared to the great divide in color research. People have been debating colors for a long, long time. Kay and Berlin’s side is known as “universalists.” Their critics are known as “relativists.” The relativists think that we experience and talk about colors in all different ways, and that the universalists are probably forcing a Western interpretation on other people’s cultures and languages.

Nicola: So, I was trying to figure out why the rainbow is what we say the rainbow is, right? Because first of all, there’s no real lines between the different colors. So why do we partition them the way we do? And also, all these kids learn about indigo and violet, and I’m like, those aren’t colors that we sort of normally use in language in modern society. So, I was trying to figure out where the rainbow came from. So apparently, the Greek philosopher Aristotle listed the seven basic colors as black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, and violet. And then in the 1600s, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton kind of continued this tradition of sevens, the Greek tradition of sevens. So now the rainbow is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Jen: Right, and we’ve got plenty more color words now. I mean, think about all of the crayons in those really big Crayola boxes. But some—like orange, for example—actually come from physical objects. I’m thinking peach, indigo, plum. Does that make us like the Candoshi in some ways?

Nicola: Sure. So, when you have this World Color Survey, and you are trying to find the smallest vocabulary set with which people can name any color, one of the confusions is whether the word that they’re using is actually a color word or a thing word. So, in English, we have words like “blue,” which don’t mean anything other than just the color, so it’s clear what you’re talking about. But then, as you just said, we have the word “orange,” and it has multiple meanings: It’s a fruit, and it’s a color. So sometimes when a word is like that, it has multiple meanings, it’s hard to tell if someone’s even talking about color or about something else.


Chip: This is Simon Overall.

Simon: I started studying Amazonian languages in 2004 when I started working on a grammatical description of a language named Aguaruna, which is spoken in the north of Peru.


So, one thing that I’ll just point out that traditionally the language has been spelled and pronounced as Candoshi. In the language itself, the sound spelled with the “sh” is a distinctive sound, and there’s another sound spelled with a “z,” which is slightly different, and that’s actually the sound that’s in the name, so, Candoshi is a misspelling and a mispronunciation for the speakers of the language, who pronounce it Kandozi.

Simon: The word for black, kantsirpi, the word for black, I have two examples of it. One is when a guy was describing making traditional clothes and using a dye that makes the cloth black. And another example is, I was out with a guy looking for worms for fishing, and he was digging around in the mud and describing the worms that he was looking for and said they’re black-colored worms, and that was also kantsirpi.

Nicola: There is a word called, ptsiyaro. And some people would say that that is their word for yellow, and other people would say, no, that is the name of a bird that happens to be yellow. So, it’s very hard to tell. And this is a very common one: Chobiapi in their language signifies ripe fruit, and it’s very common in some languages that the word for ripeness is the word for red.

Jen: I totally get what you’re saying about the role of language and culture in framing colors. And that it’s, actually, not exactly clear where you draw the line. But I can’t help but think that there’s got to be a biological explanation for why we experience things differently or the same. To chalk it up to just culture and language doesn’t seem to me like it’s telling the whole story. 

Nicola: Yeah, well, so, when I first think about this question, my own personal background is more in the physical sciences, so, my first inclination was to think, well, surely, it’s just something to do with our eyes, right? Like, I know we have three cones for seeing different kinds of color, and I just assumed that maybe they’re sort of designed to peak at certain wavelengths in the color spectrum and that’s why we, you know, define colors the way that we do. But this turns out not to be true.

Jen: So, the cones are these receptors that are in our eyes?

Nicola: Yeah. We have rods and cones in our eyes, and they are designed to take in light from the world and interpret them, and the cones in particular are designed to take in sort of different frequencies of lights.

Jen: Got it. And so, you were thinking that it’s something about the cones, and maybe they’re different between people, or maybe they’re the same, and that affects how we see color?

Nicola: Yeah. Or I thought that maybe, you know, humans in general, their cones would be predisposed to peak at certain frequencies of light so that you might say, OK, well, where that cone’s reception peaks, that’s gonna be a color that we give a name. But it turns out not to be like that. It’s a very, kind of, muddy picture of how we interpret light, so there doesn’t seem to be a sort of really firm biological reason for why, for example, when you look at a rainbow you might say there is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and not some color in between the green and the blue, for example.

Jen: Yeah, I mean, I imagine that part of the sophisticated vocabulary around sight is because we’re such a visually oriented species.

Nicola: And you really notice that, too, with some of the other senses, because we talked about taste, and taste has a fairly well-established, noncontroversial set of basic qualities, like salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami, that’s the new one, which is basically the taste of MSG.  

And the reason that that’s not very controversial is because we actually have different physical taste buds in our tongue for each of those things. So, there is like a physical reason to call those basic tastes, but you think about our other senses and that’s not true. Like, hearing: Can you name the six basic sounds? I mean, there aren’t any. Would you say something sounds loud or clangy or harsh or squeaky or … we’re just describing them. There isn’t actually a word for it. And same with smell. We would say something smells like grass or smells like fresh air or smells like cookies, but we don’t have a word for the smell itself, particularly. So, it’s really interesting to think about how we talk about these different experiences that we have.

Jen: All right, so we have these people with a sense of taste that’s over the top. And we call them super tasters, but is there any kind of biological predisposition for some people to maybe be able to see more colors the way some people taste more flavors?

Nicola: Weirdly, there is. Yes, good guess. So, there is. It goes both ways, right? Some people have defective rods in their eyes, and so they turn out to be colorblind. And there are a variety of different kinds of colorblindness. Some people can’t see color at all; they just see shades of gray. And other people, for example, can’t distinguish between red and green. And then on the other side of the spectrum, you have some people who have an additional cone in their eyes. They’re called “tetrachromats,” which kind of means four cones. And they can discriminate differences in colors that most of us can’t even perceive. 

Jen: Wow. I can’t, I mean, I guess I can’t even imagine what that color would be, right?

Nicola: Exactly. It’s so hard, right? We all know that there are, sort of, insects that can see in, say, the ultraviolet or the infrared, and we can’t do that. And we just have to sort of imagine what it is that they’re seeing.


Jen: So, when we are seeing something, let’s say we’re looking at a sunset. Is our brain receiving the same color, and we’re naming it differently? Or are we fundamentally seeing something different than someone who has a different name for it?

Nicola: So, I guess those are kind of two different questions, and first of all, everyone is receiving the same frequencies of light from the world. That’s a kind of physical reality. So, then, the first question is, what does your brain do with that information? And I think that can be a difference between one person and another person is how their brain is interpreting those signals. And I don’t think we have any way of knowing what is going on there. That’s, like, a complete philosophical mystery. Once your brain has done that, we’re social people, and we talk about our experiences to each other. So, our culture is different between one culture and another about how they talk about those perceived experiences. And that is what the language really gets to the heart of.

Jen: Do you think humans perceive colors the same everywhere? Or is the way we talk about and group colors a byproduct of culture and language? In other words, are you a universalist, or are you a relativist? 

Nicola: Yeah, I was thinking about this. Well, so, I guess, I’m in between, which is maybe a boring answer, but I love to think that there are things that unite us as humans, that we all have universal experiences that bind us. But I also love that we’re all different, that we each have unique experiences of the world. And I guess, as a writer, I believe in the power of words to convey the same meaning to a large group of different people. So, I guess that puts me more on the universalist side of things because I believe that if I write a sentence down, it has the same meaning to me as it does to you.

Jen: And so how do you think this impacts our listeners?

Nicola: Well, I think it’s just wonderful to broaden our minds about how we experience things, you know, to acknowledge both human diversity and human sameness at the same time because it’s so crazy to think that other people don’t see a rainbow as having seven colors. You know, you grow up, and it’s one of the first things that you’re taught. You teach your little kids how to count to 10, and you teach them the colors of the rainbow as if it’s this, like, totally fundamental core reality. And maybe it isn’t.

Nicola: And I think it’s really mind-blowing and healthy to take our assumptions about why the world is the way it is and kind of explode them a little bit. And sometimes that’s color, and maybe sometimes that’s something else. Maybe it’s morality or politics, and maybe it just makes us more accepting of different opinions without calling other people wrong.


Chip: OK, Jen! So, after speaking with Nicola, what do you think?

Jen: Well, I mean, I think it’s so interesting that even some of the most obvious things that we think are totally natural, like the terms we use for color, that actually they’re really shaped and influenced by the cultural communities that we grow up in. And that even something as obvious as red is red because we’re taught that that’s what red is, and we’re taught that that’s the word that we use to describe it.

Chip: Yeah, it’s so hard to get beyond, right? Because we do have the world around us, and it seems so obvious, right? Like, red is red. There’s no question. That’s so important to remember, that nature-culture distinction, and I think your and Nicola’s conversation got to that, especially around biology and culture and the interplay. It’s not necessarily one or the other. Yet, I think, still, for me, there’s still a big question about what’s at stake with this conversation about, do you see what I see? Do we share that same experience?

Jen: Yeah, it’s not just about red.

Chip: No, definitely not. I mean, the underlying big question is: Is there a unified human experience? Is there something we all share deeply, both biologically and, kind of through our lived experience, what we may call culture, you know? Or are cultures so different, do we construct worlds so differently, do we see things and taste things and hear things so completely differently that they’re these walls constructed that we are never going to be able to get over?

Jen: One way that I like to think about it is that, OK, all our categories may be really different, but we’re all making categories. We’re all trying to understand the world around us. And I think if we can understand that those things that always seem natural to us maybe aren’t, maybe they are the result of where we grew up or what we’ve come to learn, I think it really helps bridge that wall to just simply say that part of the human experience is making those categories so that we can understand and communicate to each other about the world around us.

Chip: Yeah, that’s true. It’s like “Laurel” and “Yanny,” right? I mean, we both heard it, and both of our brains are working to interpret it. We experienced something different. But then we had our language to try to figure it out together.

Jen: Right.


Jen: Definitely “Yanny.”

Chip: Definitely “Laurel.” No question. [laughs]


Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Cat Jaffee, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. And it was hosted by me, Chip Colwell.

Jen: And me, Jen Shannon.

Jen: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with delightful contributions from producer Paul Karolyi and production assistant Freda Kreier, who provided additional support.

Chip: Meral Agish is our fact-checker. And a special thanks this time to journalist and SAPIENS editor Nicola Jones. You can read more of Nicola’s work at SAPIENS.org, where she writes about bonobos and beer and genetics—but not all at the same time. We’ll include some of our favorites in the show notes. Thank you also to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for letting us record at the Our Senses exhibit and answering our questions along the way.

Jen: This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.

Chip: Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org.

Jen: SAPIENS is a part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Mina: Hey, Jen. Where do rainbows go on vacation?

Jen: I don’t know. Where do they go?

Mina: Colorado.


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