From the GLIMPSE Archives: Naming Color

We at GLIMPSE are endlessly fascinated by the cultural factors that influence perception, and it’s this fascination that draws us back to Debi Roberson and Richard Hanley’s 2009 article called “Relatively Speaking” for GLIMPSE’s “Color” issue. In it, they discuss the relationship between color and language: “what we see” and “what we call that which we see” in terms of color categorization. Beyond the linguistic distinction between “blue” and “green” that is absent from many languages, the article suggested that the linguistic labeling of more subtle color nuances is largely based on the varying “cultural needs of different societies.” More recently, Roberson’s research of color categorization among the Himba people of northern Namibia has been highlighted in the BBC Horizon series, in an episode called “Do You See What I See?” As the episode suggests, the color perceptions of the Himba people and their ability to distinguish colors might actually be different from those living in the West, and vice versa. For example, the Himba tribe might be better at distinguishing the subtle differences of green that would be generally unnoticed by the average Westerner. Conversely, the Himba people might have difficulty isolating one blue square out of group of green ones, if all of the colors in the group belong to the same color label.

This chart demonstrates how the Himba tribe categorize colors. “Burou” is the label for what many Westerners would see as a diverse group of blues and greens. Image courtesy of Debi Roberson and Richard Hanley, and illustrated by Carolyn Arcabascio.

The original article, “Relatively Speaking” by Roberson and Hanley was published in GLIMPSE’s “Color” issue #4. What do you think, readers? Have you ever wondered how your own culture and language influences how you see the world?


GLIMPSE journal is an interdisciplinary supercollider presenting the work of leading and emerging scholars, researchers, scientists and artists from around the world, on the “art + science of seeing.” Some of our contributors are independent thinkers and doers with no formal institutional affiliations, and others are affiliated with the most respected research institutions in the world. Read all about them.

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