Monday, 8 December 2008

Colours and Language

The human perception of colour seems to be more subject to change than other phenomena observed by the senses. If you ask an American or a Canadian what the colours of the rainbow are, no doubt the Rainbow Song will burst from their lips with the colours . However, if you visit the most Southern Region of Japan, Okinawa, you will find that they divide their colours primarily into only three primary groups - black, white, and red. The various shades in between (what we perceive as individual colours) will fall into one of these categories. One of the most ambiguous colours in existence, perhaps, is green which is often interpreted as a shade of blue. (Take for example, Japan, once again where they consider the grass, vegetables, and the colour for "go" on traffic lights to be "blue.")

Why do I bring this up? It is because, yesterday, I came across such a difference in interpretation in the Italian language as well. The difference exists specifically with regards to the colour of hair. In Italian, there exist the colours blonde, brown and black, but the cut off line between what is actually defined as blonde or brown is different to that in English. Anyone who has seen the colour of my hair will agree that it is a medium to dark shade of brown in English terms. However, when I attempted to explain this to dark haired Marta, I was met with rigid opposition.

"Absolutely not,” cried Marta, “There’s no way. I have brown hair! Yours is "biondo scuro" (dark blonde)."

"She's right," added Ludovica, "in Italy, anyone with your shade of hair would choose to dye it blonde. It is light enough to be possible. As for us, we have true brown hair."

The bristles went up on the back of my neck. I was prepared for a fight. What right had they to steal my identity as a brown haired individual? Yet I managed to hold back, because I realized that not everyone is metalingusitically aware that even something so simple and seemingly straightfoward as the colours in our world are not interpreted in the same way in every culture. Instead, I attempted to explain to Marta that in English, we use "brown" for many different shades, even for shades such as Pietro's, which is verging on dirty blonde.

Did it work? Not quite. "No! You're dark blonde and that's final," she cried at the end of our discussion, and that put the kibosh on that.

Ah well, she is only seven after all!


Mamma Mia said...

I wonder what colour my hair is to them? I hope they say dark blonde. I have always wanted to be a "dumb blonde". Marta will probably say, "oh, that is grey" - thanks Marta.
Mamma Mia

Steph the WonderWorrier said...

Wow, that's really interesting! I would definitely call you a full-fledged brunette! I never thought of hair colour as being so subjective, our way seems to work so well. LOL.

heather-in-italia said...

Haha, you made me chuckle mum! I would say we have the same shade of hair colour so that would make you a dumb blonde for the first time in your life ;) Mind you, I can't really see the difference between my hair colour and Marta's so I remain dubious.

Steph - I know! And it is very frustrating trying to explain to a seven year old that language and perception can be completely subjective as in this case. I think I will wait for a few years to explain it fully to her! :D

Restaurants Brugge said...

Colors have a significant effect on human psychology also. Even, Color Psychology is a dedicated stream for study and research under the main stream of Human Psychology...

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