The language you speak could determine the shades of colour you see

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You think you can distinguish all the shades of green in the world? For most of us, it’s a ridiculous question to ask. Of course yes, I can distinguish the different shades of green - I can effortlessly distinguish army green from lime green with no trouble.

But did you know your language is preventing you seeing other colour shades? That is an audacious statement to make. But yes, your mother tongue, national language or official language maybe a hindrance to how you perceive your immediate environment.

Be it the encounters of early Christian missionaries, explorers, or traders. The world is full of interesting stories of people being stunned, upon finding people who conceived and interpreted reality differently because of language.

The Kindergarten teacher and the subsequent art lessons may have exhaustively exposed you to the different colours, but you might be shocked to learn that; there are some colours you probably may never see. But, there is someone somewhere in the world, that may be able to see that colour. And, it has nothing to do with biology, nor superman like eyes that makes them see many colour wavelengths than you.

The interesting interaction of the Himba people with colour

You probably have not heard of the Himba. But if you want an example of how much you do not know, look no further than the Himba people from Namibia. The Himba, are mainly pastoralists who are found in the Northern Namibia although some can be found along the Angolan-Namibian border.

The Himba people speak OtjiHimba a dialect of the Herero language which belongs to the larger Bantu language family tree.

The Himba, have the distinction of being capable of naming and seeing different shades of green that may not be visible to an English speaker. However, they also have a problem of distinguishing between blue and green. The problem has nothing to do with eyes, but language.

While the Himba have only five primary colours in their lexicon, English has 11 main colour categories. You will therefore be surprised when a Himba person tells you that the ocean and the sky is black.

 Himba woman mixing red ochre with petroleum jelly

Himba woman mixing red ochre with petroleum jelly

Put this into a global context with two of the most widely spoken languages as an example; English and Chinese and there are visible and quantitative differences in how English and Chinese speakers describe colour hues with each language having its own bias.

The case for learning a new language

The modern language journal, has enumerated one case study research after another, showing that; multilingualism, has an important role in intelligence transfer, during cognitive development. One of the most famous studies, was done by Joshua A. Fishman who showed an overall intelligence transfer when you learn a new language.

Reality and how we grasp it is an interesting interaction between language and what we perceive. And, depending on the richness or deficiency of language to express certain things, language is directly implicated. This is because every language has an operational logic dictated by the environment.

In other words, every language has a spirit that guides it. If you think you are very cultured, try learning a new language and you will be surprised how little you know about the immediate world around you. Even emotions, our most personal first-hand experience as human beings are prisoners to our own languages.

This is one of the reasons why, learning a new language literally expands your worldview and makes you more emotionally intelligent. This applies not only applies to physical reality, but also to theoretical concepts as well. In as much as language allows us to communicate, it is also a medium of communication that can wall us in in our own little world.

 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

To demonstrate this, the Omo valley in Ethiopia and the Solomon Islands are interesting phenomena not only for linguists and anthropologists, but it’s an interesting analogy of how language is also a means for isolating people within the same geographical region who sometimes speak mutually incomprehensible languages. On the political front, where we have modern states, this can be a huge problem.

In fact, in the Omo valley, you just have to drive a few kilometers to find these linguistic variations which sadly, may have evolved that way, because of inter-tribal warfare. Nobody wants to speak his enemies language after all. This is a major problem the European souverains problems recognised; they knew that, they could never achieve national unity without a national language.

Cardinal Richelieu of France sought to standardise the French language in 1635. Before then, medieval France, was characterised by regions and even villages speaking different dialects.

But, politics should not stand in the way of personal growth. This is because, reason learning a new language gives you more linguistic, emotional and cerebral flexibility. Think of all the idioms, proverbs, and other literary devices you can borrow from another language-even in ordinary situations.

So that, next time you have a debate, and your opponent makes a witty remark. Most likely, you will be desperately left trying to search and compose the words for making a witty comeback. The English don’t have a word for that scenario, but fortunately for me, the French have a word for it; it’s called Esprit d'escalier.


Written by Charles Njorge, Lexigo: Hailing from France, Charles is a professional multilingual translator fluent in English, French and Swahili. His eye for detail, love of arts and education in political science is reflected in his writing which highlights and explores different cultures, customs and languages.