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color perception and related vocabulary

From:Adam Parrish <myth@...>
Date:Friday, January 8, 1999, 2:12
        Hey, all.  We've been studying vision in our psychology class and
I was just wondering, what with the recent discussion of conlang-speakers
that are not necessarily human, if anyone had devised a culture whose
perception of color varied from the norm.
        Apparently (according to this Young-Heimholtz trichromatic theory)
the retina of the human eye has receptors for the colors red, green and
blue (the primary colors of light).  (The threshold for wavelength
[hue] is between 400-700 nanometers [just between infrared and
ultraviolet].)  When these receptors are stimulated at the same time, we
see variations on those colors -- for example, red and green make yellow,
green and blue make cyan.  Apparently, animals like, say, dogs, have only
two types of color receptors (lacking a receptor for red wavelengths).
Color-blind people (at least, in the most common form of color-blindness)
also lack sensitivity to certain wavelengths of red (leading to
dichromatic instead of trichromatic vision).
        While learning this, I was wondering if anyone had experimented
with alternative sight systems in their contructed languages/cultures, and
how that affected vocabulary.  For example, perhaps there is a culture
somewhere that's completely color-blind.  What would the color vocabulary
look like?  Maybe there's some humanoid (or not) species that has more
than three color receptors (or perhaps using a different color scheme,
like yellow-magenta-cyan).  How would the color terms evolve?  What about
color sensitivity beyond the normal spectrum, like with insects who see
infrared?  I heard that Klingon color terms break the established human
universals -- is this difference traced in any way back to biology?
        Maybe the perception of color isn't necessarily visual, either.
Maybe in some species, just as we feel hot in response to infrared rays,
color sensitivity comes through touch (i.e., a member of this species
could put its hand or antenna or whatever over an apple and say 'This is
red' or 'this object reflects light in a reddish manner' without looking
at it -- just as we can put our hands over a stove and say 'This is hot').
Or it could get wackier, such as color sensation through smell or light
intensity sensation through hearing (much in the same way that smell and
taste are connected, or, more drastically, with people who have
        As for me, I've been thinking of diverging the Saakha (one of my
less-developed concultures) a little bit more from humanity and making
them all completely color deficient (possessing only rod cells, not
cones).  This would lead to having an adaptation where both
wavelength and amplitude (hue and brightness) manifest themselves as
intensity.  It'd also be neat if they had a larger range of detectable
light, e.g., the ability to detect infrared and ultraviolet. So they'd
probably describe something that's red or infrared (low-frequency) as
'dark' and something that's purple or ultraviolet as 'light.'
        . . . or not.  But it is a cool way to get around color
universals.  Just some food for thought.  Has anyone else considered this?
Maybe you've thought of different ways that your con-speakers perceive
vision, such as different feature detectors, or maybe a completely
different way of perceiving, like Aunt Beast in _A Wrinkle in Time_.  Or
maybe they have abnormal abilities in other senses.  But I'll stop
rambling now. :)

Adam Parrish                   "A friend of mine once told me that the                 best way to understand teenagers was to    think of them as constantly on LSD.  It was
                               good advice." -- Mary Pipher