The earth is blue like an orange

This week, the whole Internet community had been quarreling because of the color of a dress.

Don’t worry, this post is not an umpteenth explanation of what is happening to your eyes when seeing the picture. And in case you were not aware of this phenomenon, this is an article about it.

I was attending a very bad argument between my friends at lunch time, last Friday, because of this dress. One of them, totally panicky, raised a question that has stuck in my head since then.

What if people have actually different perception of the world? What if my neighbor doesn’t see things as I see them?

After a while, trying my best not to be influenced by what was happening on the web, trying not to be victim of the general paranoia, I decided to analyze the problem from another angle.

Misunderstanding in general can also be a matter of language and words. For instance (staying in this color problem), let’s say that your mother told you that, considering a cloudless sky in summer, what you see as blue is called “red”. You are going to say that the sky is red, yet you see it as blue. Just a problem of association between a word and the idea or concept which it conveys. There would then be a misunderstanding between you and others that called blue “blue” (or any other name).

Let’s make the problem a more complicated now: Let’s imagine that our language has simply no word to describe something that can be easily described in another. This hypothesis is actually a statement. Some languages make a difference between things that our words identify as the same thing. For example, in English (and in French), we use the word “wood” to describe both the tree fiber and a small forest. In Danish, these two different concepts are named differently, which makes it clearer to identify. Some other languages, such as Russian, has absolutely no homographs, everything can be named by a different word, and when they are spelled the same way, there is usually an accent on one of them, so that the word is not pronounced the same, in order to enable the distinction.

Yet, these homographs are not a problem for us: there is always a way to distinguish them according to the context. This is because we clearly identify different concepts hidden between a word.

However, some languages and cultures don’t distinguish concepts that are distinguished in our “world”. Welsh and Breton for instance don’t make any difference between the idea of the color “blue” and the idea of the color “green”. Therefore, they have only one word to describe what they considered as the same color. That’s because the solar spectrum is divided differently by cultures. Thus, we chose to divide it into 7 colors whereas some chose to divide it into fewer. This sounded weird to me at first… How can people see only one color when there are actually two distinct ones?

Conversely, some chose to divide it into more colors. How can it be, you should be wondering : the Inuit people has no less than 12 words to describe what we called the color “white”.

Some words have just no equivalent in other languages. Each idiom organizes by itself the data that are given by their own experience. It conveys a different way of representing reality, constituting a prism through which reality appear to us in a very peculiar way. Learning a language is not about labelling differently things that you already know. Learning a language is about analyzing and interpreting differently reality.

… by the way, this dress is definitely blue & black !

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