Perception of Color and Languages

John Samuel
3 min readJan 2, 2021

Most of us, at some stage, may have argued with our friends regarding the color name. I recall many such discussions where I could not completely agree with the suggested color name, often arguing whether the object is green or blue, red or brown, etc. I recall learning twelve colors during the initial years of learning, and I think that the number might have reached somewhere between twenty and thirty during the later years. Looking back, I feel that it is hard to compartmentalize colors under certain names if we are not precise about all the possible values for a given color name.

Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

I suppose the first time I questioned about technical aspects of colors was when I learned about them in my textbook related to computer graphics. A computer screen is made up of pixels, and the color of each pixel that we see is obtained from the intensity of three colors: red, green, and blue (RGB). RGB color models are used in the representation of digital images. The colors got a completely new meaning in my life, and I understood that with just 8 bits each for red, green, and blue, one could represent 16,777,216 colors (2^8= 256 and 256 * 256 * 256 = 16777216). It was a major revelation in my life.

When we start learning new languages, we usually come across the chapters where color names are taught. I think the languages I have come across so far have color names for white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, etc. But what about the other colors? I suppose that we cannot imagine giving names to all the 16,777,216 colors.

My personal study of languages helped me understand that the linguists have already assessed the literature on the usage of colors. It is always interesting to imagine the colors in our historical past, in different parts of the world. I came across the usage of Gladstone’s review of Homer in the book Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age in the different studies of linguists. Is it possible to say that the ancient civilizations were limited to black and white colors because they had no color names for other colors in their vocabulary? I wonder if I will be unable to choose an object of my favorite color if I do not know its color name. There was also a period before the digital age when analog photography was common, and there were television sets using cathode rays. Lacking color names did not stop our creativity.

Now in the digital age, we can precisely define a color using the RGB value. Some of us browsing the internet may have come across the color wheel, the color palette, or the color scheme. Most of them let you choose the colors in RGB values and some even in HSL (hue-saturation-lightness) values. As technologies advance, we may be able to add more precision to our desired colors. We can now share and talk about the colors using these numerical values and without any color name.

I have a couple of blue shirts, and they are different from each other. If someone asks me their color, my first response would be blue. Though in some languages, we have added new words for different shades of blue. But can any language add words for all possible shades, even if we decide to use only eight bits, i.e., 256 shades of blue? How will languages evolve in the future when our favorite color needs to be located somewhere in the color scheme?


  1. RGB color space
  2. RGB color model
  3. Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age
  4. Color wheel
  5. Color scheme
  6. HSL and HSV
  7. High-dynamic-range imaging

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