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Your understanding of colour depends on the languages you speak

Do you think everyone sees colour in the same way? Wrong: it actually depends on a person’s first language.

We tend to think that all humans are fundamentally the same. In fact, this is a foundational tenet of our modern, politically correct worldview.

That’s understandable because we’ve had such a bad history of assuming fundamental distinctions between different groups of humans, often on the basis of questionable criteria like skin colour or religion.

But the amazing thing about science is that it doesn’t care at all about politics. And don’t worry: this article isn’t about to espouse any debunked, racist theories about differences between different groups of humans. But it turns out, different groups of humans sometimes see the world in fundamentally different ways.

But before any racist readers knowingly nod your heads: this is more to do with language than it is to do with genes. In fact, it’s all about language.

So what am I talking about exactly? One of the most fundamental aspects of our subjective experience: colour perception.

You see, when scientists look at different populations and study their colour perceptions, they find that it’s highly dependent on language.

We tend to think of colour as being fundamental, with language merely playing the role as the passive describer of what is objectively true. But not so fast: English has ten fundamental colour categories (yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, red, orange, brown, black, gray, and white), while Russian has twelve (zheltyy, zelenyy, goluboy, siniy, purpurnyy, rozovyy, krasnyy, oranzhevvy, korichevyy, chernyy, seryy, belyy).

The upshot of that: in a meaningful way, Russian speakers and English speakers perceive the world in slightly different ways. When two English speakers say something is the same colour, two Russian speakers could hypothetically disagree. And everyone in that discussion would be correct, because language is more fundamental than colour.

And that’s really the key to all this.

But there’s a much more surprising finding: many languages only have a handful of colour groups in their repertoire. And the crazy thing is: if they only have three of them, scientists have a pretty good rule for guessing what those three will be: dark, light, and red.

How do they do it? Prepare to have your mind blown, as this quick explanation will change the way you look at colour forever:

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