Be true to your school (colors)

The Monitor's weekly language column considers the vocabulary of color perception (as the "yellow" class of 2011 begins its academic odyssey).

September always feels like "back to school" time, but this year I've literally been back on campus. I was at Wellesley College, where a new "yellow" class has just begun its academic odyssey.

Blue is the color for the school as a whole, but each class is known by one of four colors – yellow, red, green, and purple. The class of 2011 is a "yellow" class, and will remain so forever.

The briefing I got on all this led to musings about color perception and the vocabulary of color. Do we see colors because we have the words for them, or develop the words because we see the colors?

Paul Kay and Brent Berlin are linguists who have looked into these questions to try to determine whether language shapes thought, or vice versa. I'm oversimplifying grossly. But suffice it to say here that they found that although some languages have more words for color than others, there is a universal pattern to the way people think of colors.

English has 11 of what Kay and Berlin call "basic color terms" – black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, pink, orange, purple, and gray.

The New Guinean language Dani has only two color terms: one for black, green, blue, and other "cool" colors. The other is for white, red, yellow, and other "warm" colors. If a culture has three color terms, Kay and Berlin found, the split is almost always "black-cool," "white-light," and "red-yellow-warm." A fourth color, if there is one, is usually green or blue, carved out of the "black-cool" spectrum.

During the early days of evolutionary theory, William Ewart Gladstone (whose day job was as British prime minister) noticed differences between color terms in ancient Greek and modern Greek. From this he inferred that the ancients saw colors differently – that the physiology of human color perception had "evolved" since Homer wrote about Odysseus sailing over the "wine-dark sea."

If you learned the colors of the spectrum with the mnemonic "Roy G. Biv" (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), you may wonder about the color missing from the lexicon above: indigo.

Philip Ball, in his 2001 book "Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color," suggested that indigo owes its place in the rainbow to Sir Isaac Newton. "Newton saw fit to identify an arbitrary seven subdivisions of the prismatic spectrum purely to establish consonance with ideas about musical harmony.... And so the Newtonian rainbow acquired its indigo and violet where I defy anyone to see other than a blue deepening to purple."

Meanwhile, Sir Isaac's contemporaries in New England had their own ideas about color, with effects continuing to our own day.

We think of Puritans as clad in black, but that would be incorrect, according to historian David Hackett Fischer. Black "was reserved for ruling elders and the governing elite," he wrote in "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America."

"The taste of New England ran not to black or gray, but to 'sadd colors' as they were called in the seventeenth century.... Specially favored was russet, and a color called philly mort from the French feuille morte ('dead leaf')."

The tradition lives on.

"In the older universities of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, scholars and athletes do not appear in colors such as Princeton's gaudy orange or Oxford's brilliant blues and reds," Fischer continues. "The color of Harvard is a dreary off-purple euphemistically called crimson. Brown University's idea of high color is dark brown, trimmed with black. On ceremonial occasions, the president of that institution wears a mud-colored garment which is approximately the color of used coffee grounds."

For the record, Professor Fischer is on the faculty at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass. It was founded in 1948 and its colors are blue and white.

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