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Monthly Archives: July 2020

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by Richard Nilsen

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When I cross the border from Detroit, Michigan to Windsor, Ontario, I flash a passport. There is a clear demarkation, a borderline, between the two nations. This is true for almost every nation. And we tend to think of such borders between most categories: Good and evil; Liberal and Conservative; Boys and Girls. But the real world is more ambiguous, more nuanced. Take colors. Where is the delineating line between green and blue? We may think we know when something is clearly green and when something is distinctly blue, but one slides into the other and any thought of drawing a line evaporates.
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Unless someone is colorblind, there is little trouble distinguishing individual hues. The problem is not in the color, but in the name. What do we call “green,” what do we call “blue.”
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The whole issue of color names is fraught with inexactitude. What an artist means by “red” may be what a printer calls “magenta.” Where is red no longer red, but something we recognize as violet? There is no surveyor to set his theodolite firm and draw a line, setting the deeds for red and violet or blue and green.
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And even if we who speak English feel secure that we know the bounds, even if we can’t prove it in court, those who speak other tongues have other ideas. When approached worldwide, the entire question of color names becomes a quagmire. Something that seems so simple we take it for granted with hardly a thought, turns out to be queasily ambiguous.
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It is more akin to the question of where is the Middle East. Does Iran count? At least since the Arab conquest, Egypt has always been considered part of it, but then, how about Libya? And if we include Libya, should we include Algeria? What are the boundaries of the Levant, of the Maghreb? Somewhere the Middle East turns into North Africa; but where? Likewise, which states are Midwestern? Some people count Oklahoma as a Southern state. But the South is a region, not a nation. Shall we split California between the desert Southwest and the conifers of the Northwest? And so, Green is a region, too. And blue, and red, and yellow.
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In English we have 11 or 12 color names that signify such regions, names that are not metaphorical or compound. (Even that has some question, because names that are no longer thought of as metaphorical originally entered the language through metaphor: The word-root for “Blue” once meant “shiny” or “glittery,” even if the shine were copper-colored.)
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These basic names are often thought of as “primary.” Red, blue and yellow are one set of primary colors. But other colors are also so basic as to be linguistically primary: Green, purple, brown, white, gray, black, orange, pink, tan. Other names we commonly use, such as “turquoise,” “teal,” “beige,” “aquamarine,” “fuchsia,” or “indigo,” fall under one or another of the larger umbrella terms.
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But no matter what language, the division of sheep and goats into their categories is a matter of convention. In English we tend to think of red and pink as separate colors. They need not be: Pink is really just a tint of red, but we have separate primary words for the two shades. In many other languages, such as Russian, the same distinction is made between light blue and dark blue. Not two shades of the same color, but two distinct colors.
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In Russian they are “goluboy” and “siniy.” In Moroccan Arabic, a similar distinction is made between “sibi” (light blue) and “zraq” (for the darker). In Albanian, the two are “kalter” and “blu.” In Polish, “blekitny” and “nieblieski.”
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On the other hand, other languages, among them Japanese, fail to make some distinctions at all, even between green and blue. Until recently, in Japanese, “ao” means both the color of the sky and the color of grass. (Now there is “midori” adapted for use as “green,” but which is still thought of as a shade of “ao” rather than a separate color on its own.) Vietnamese uses “xanh” for both colors.
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In English, we have a primary word for “green.” But at least one color theorist divides up the color wheel with names for two distinct greens: sea green and leaf green. They are both clearly green, but also clearly distinguishable. Why do we not have separate names for these two? It’s just the way our language works.
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When I first learned to name to colors of the rainbow, I was taught the mnemonic “Roy G. Biv” — Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. But dividing the spectrum up into seven colors was just a relic of the Middle Ages when seven was a magic number and we divided up the world in sevens, such as seven tones in the musical scale, seven planets, seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world and the seven days of creation.
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What, pray say, is the difference between “indigo” and “blue?” And even “blue” is ambiguous. When engineers and scientists define blue as a primary color in the additive system, the blue they mean is closer to violet than to cerulean.
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The mention of the rainbow or of the spectrum is problematic. A prism divides white light into its component hues, and that is all nice and scientific, but we don’t “see” spectral colors, scientifically, but rather we interpret colors through a kind of differential analysis, comparing which sensors (cones) in our eyes are activated by the light hitting them. And so, our perception of color is not a one-to-one correspondence with spectral wavelength.
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The spectrum may be an objective reality, but color vision is entirely a subjective experience, taking place in our brains. We can even see colors that don’t exist in nature as wavelengths of light. While the spectrum is divided up into wavelengths of light, red on the longer end, blue on the shorter, violet, for instance, is not a wavelength at all, but rather a mixture of lights translated through the optic nervous system and perceived as a singular hue. It does not exist in nature, only exists in our brains.
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And when we perceive the color yellow, it is almost never because a yellow wavelength of light is bombarding our retina. We see yellow when both red and green light hits the back of the eye. We see violet when both red and blue strike together. Again, the perception is created in our minds.
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The acute human eye can distinguish about 16,000 colors, or shades and tints of colors. But each of them is really only a buzzing on nerve endings in the eye that distinguish between red, blue, and green light — or in a more recent theory, between light and dark (black and white); blue and yellow; and red and green. The pile of wavelengths are blended together in our brains and we perceive color.
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But we cannot have names for the 16,000 varieties of chroma (although sometimes it seems we’ve named millions). And even if we tried, our divisions would be different from the divisions in Chinese or Greek or Swahili.
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The Zuni language classes yellow and orange together, which means that once they have coded it in language, say, as if to tell a friend what they have seen, the friend decodes the word into his trove of experience and comes up with something quite different. It may be orange; it may be yellow. That is a distinction that our language makes, but his does not.
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The tomato is a whole lot closer to the orange end of the red category and the stop sign is closer to the magenta end. Yet we call both red, and if we tell a friend about something we have seen and say it is red, the friend will decode the term the same inexact way the Zuni friend decodes orange-yellow.
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And there are aspects of color nomenclature that English doesn’t have, or has only vestigially.
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There are languages in which the surface reflectivity of an object changes its color name. We have that in English, where a metallic version of grey is called silver, and a version of yellow that maintains specular reflections is called gold.
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In certain languages there are names for colors that are descriptive in terms of surface, as a wet black or a dry black There is a big difference between a box merely painted black with glossy house paint, and a Japanese lacquer box. The lacquer is a blacker black.
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The distinctions of hue turns out to be a historical process. If you’ve ever wondered why Homer calls the Mediterranean Sea “wine dark,” (oinopa ponton), it is because ancient Greeks did not have a name for blue or for green. This is not as surprising as it might seem.
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In 1969 scientists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorized that languages adopt color names in a recurrent pattern. First comes the distinction between light and dark, or black and white. In such languages, blue is a subset of black and yellow is a subset of white. Context determines the meaning of “light” and “dark.”
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( Berlin and Kay explain: “The terms black and white appear in this hierarchy with a meaning close to the general panchromatic English terms dark and light or dull and brilliant rather than equivalent to the specific achromatic terms black and white.”)
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The two noted that if a language has a term beyond light and dark, it will be “red.” There are many languages that have only those three color terms: white, black and red. If there is a fourth term, it will be either green or yellow. I.e., if a language has a word for green, then you can bet it will also have a word for red. The third stage is when a language has both green and yellow, and it isn’t until then that “blue” enters as a recognizable name for a hue.
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In Stage VI, a word for brown is included. Again, if a language has a word for brown, you can count on it also having words for blue, yellow, green, red, black and white. Finally come words for purple, pink, orange or gray.
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Ancient Greek had no word for blue, but it did have a word that covers both green and yellow (chloros). Which means, it also had a word for red and for black. Hence, “wine dark.”
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Once this basic palette is set in words, all added color terms are metaphorical, or literary — or commercial.
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Think of all the many shades and tints that have names in English — lavender, chartreuse, scarlet, ivory, lilac, sepia — literally thousands of them. They are all derivatives and fall into subgroups of the primary 11 colors.
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And beyond the metaphorical, there are the qualified names, in which a basic hue is qualified by an adjective, such as “brick red,” or “sky blue.” Thousands of such qualified names exist regularly in English and understood as distinct shades of color. Or we think of them that way. But not so fast.
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Although we all know what “green” is, or “red,” and are willing to assume a wide and indistinct definition of them, these secondary and tertiary names can seldom be agreed on with any exactitude. One person’s scarlet is another person’s crimson.
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Commercial advertising makes great hay with this ambiguity, and has habitually invented seductive names for shades to sell product, but, again, who actually can pin down what exact shade of amber counts as “Autumn Gold?”
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I remember a page from the old Evergreen magazine in which 30 or 40 color chips were printed, and every one exactly the same, but under each was another name. Not just Autumn Gold, but Aztec Sunset, or Sunflower or Buttercream, and so on. Not a hairsbreadth difference between the actual color, but names carting along boatloads of emotional linguistic baggage. (Not one paint chip was called “Baby Poop” or “Jaundice.”)
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Beyond the basic 11 terms, humans have tried to express precise shades of hue in many ways. A box of 64 Crayola crayons is a vocabulary treasure trove of color names: cornflower, chestnut, peach, salmon, periwinkle, goldenrod, olive green, raw sienna.
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Being precise is hard. Consider Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, explaining to her contractor what colors she wants her walls painted:
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“Now, first, the living room. I want it to be a soft green. Not as blue-green as a robin’s egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow. But don’t let whoever does it get it too blue. It should be a sort of grayish yellow-green.
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“Now the dining room. I’d like yellow. Not just yellow —  a very gay yellow. Something bright and sun-shiny. I tell you, if you’ll send one of your workmen to the grocer for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong.
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“This is the paper we’ll use in the hall. It’s flowered. But I don’t want the ceiling to match any colors of the flowers. There are some little dots in the background. And it’s these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhock leaf. But the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear?
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“Now, the kitchen’s to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic, hospital white. A little warmer, but still, not to suggest any other color but white.
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“Now, for the powder room in here, I want you to match this thread.        And don’t lose it. It’s the only spool I have and I had an awful time finding it. As you can see, it’s practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.”
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She ask him if he understands.
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“Yeah, red green, blue, yellow, white.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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