Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Color is the Sky?

Respond to the question "what color is the sky?"--quickly.  Don't think about it; just blurt out your answer.

Most likely you said "blue"--which is the standard answer we give because--after all--the sky is blue.  Except when it isn't.  Go outside at night and look at the sky.  What color is it?  Or how about on a stormy rainy day.  What color is it then?

It doesn't take long for you to begin to change your answer.  Sometimes the sky is black, sometimes grey, sometimes white.  At sunrise or sunset, it can be glorious shades of pink, purple, salmon.

OK, you say--where is all this speculation going?  Well, here's where.  I happened to catch a fascinating radio program several weeks ago.  I tuned in at the point where the discussion turned to the color blue.  And the story was about a tribe that did not distinguish blue as a distinct color.  To test this, members of the tribe were shown something like the patches of color below.  And they were asked--which one is different? 

What would you answer?  

I would say--all the squares are green, except the one on the lower right which is blue.  Except this tribe did not say that.  They saw no difference in color among the squares. 

The radio show explained a whole lot more about that particular experiment--which you can listen to if you follow the link and stay with the program.  The story led to the introduction on the program of the linguist Guy Deutscher, who writes about how language shapes our perception of reality, and vice versa.  Of course, I am doing great violence to his extensive research and writing.  I just want to get to the point that having a word for something allows you to perceive it.

If you don't have a word for BLUE, can you see blue?  And that's where the question of what color is the sky comes in.  One of the presenters on the radio program talked about conducting an experiment with his daughter who was developing her language skills.  He decided not to tell her the sky was blue.  He would play naming games with her--showing her something and asking what color it was.  But he had enlisted his wife NOT to tell the child that the sky was blue.  

So finally, one day he asked his daughter--what color is the sky?  And she puzzled over it for a time, and then refused to answer.  This interchange was repeated over many days.  And always she would ponder, but not answer.  Finally, one day she tentatively said the sky was blue, no white, no blue.  Back and forth. 

The interplay between language and our perception of reality has startling implications for us all.  We don't all speak the same language, even when we are speaking the same language. 

I used to do a quick little exercise with students to help them understand how changeable language is.  I would ask them if they knew what the word "hussy" meant.  Oh, yes--they would reply.  Then I would pick out one of the young women who seemed to think herself special and I would ask--would you be offended if I called you a hussy?  Of course, she would reply.  But, why?--I asked.  Hussy is simply an abbreviation of the word "housewife."  Perception and reality and the role language plays in it all.

There are so many paths that lead off from this musing of mine.  And I will eschew following any of them.  I will leave you to your own devices.  Perhaps you will wander outside and ponder "what color is the sky?"


Peruby said...

Arrgghhh! My brain has exploded. This is way too deep for 5:50 in the morning. LOL!

NCmountainwoman said...

Interesting. I wonder if the little girl simply didn't comprehend the concept of the sky as the object to which her father pointed.

There is an extremely rare inherited type of vision disorder called blue deficiency in which people cannot distinguish the color blue.

As for the sky? Well, we all know that since God is a Tarheel, the sky is "Carolina Blue."

KGMom said...

Peruby--these musings make your brain explode? Oh, these are minor musings for me--sometimes I get really far out with my thoughts.

NC--HA. As a Penn State fan, we always heard it was Penn State blue. Of course, these days Penn State blue means something else altogether.

Anvilcloud said...

Our sky still seems a little bluey to me right now, even though it is raining and it's getting dark.

Ginnie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ginnie said...

Interesting stuff. When it comes to color I have always wondered what a person blind from birth thinks of when color is mentioned. How can you possibly describe the different shades of color to a person who has never seen any?

Climenheise said...

Does language shape reality? Yes. Does reality shape language? Yes. You know of course that skin colour is a basic problem -- why we should call some people white and others black, when neither colour is an accurate description at all of those people. The history of meanings in those two colours may help explain some of our difficulties in thinking rationally about racial background. (Not to mention the real difficulty of describing ethnicity with any accuracy.)