Before I knew that school buses were yellow, I experienced them as tangerine. I argued with my betters about this. If a good part of education is training the judgment to accept the consensus view, then I was educated to understand what adults were convinced of: that school buses are yellow in the same way roses are red and skies are blue. They certainly aren’t tangerine, or cheddar, or as the Crayola box of my youth judiciously instructed, "yellow-orange."
Alma Deutscher might sympathize. From the time she began speaking, she was the subject of a linguistic experiment: her father refrained from associating "sky" and "blue" to see if she would spontaneously put them together—a natural equation, like two and two making four. It didn’t happen, so eventually her father started asking her point-blank what color the sky was. She didn’t answer until she was twenty-three months old: "white." "It took another month until she first called the sky ‘blue,’" her father wrote,
and even then it had not yet become canonically blue: one day she said "blue," another day "white."… In short, more than six months had passed from when she was first able to recognize blue objects confidently until she named the blueness of the sky. And it seems that her confusions were not entirely over even by the age of four, because at this age she once pointed at the pitch-black sky late at night and declared that it was blue.
Had Alma seen that the sky is blue the way school buses are yellow and roses are red, she might not have given her father, Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Manchester, further proof of what he suspected: that the cultural nuances of our mother tongue influence our perceptions and possibly whole structures of thinking. In Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (Metropolitan; $28), the history of color perception provides the thin edge of the wedge into a topic that is surging again to the forefront of linguistics—not whether but how much language tells us what to see, and hence what to think.
This is a hypothesis that seems intuitively correct, but it is one that has had to fight its way back from intellectual ignominy. In 1936 Benjamin Lee Whorf published An American Indian Model of the Universe, which asserted that "the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time.’ " The idea that the Hopi experienced time in a radically different way from Europeans soon became the cornerstone of "linguistic relativity," or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the new dominant paradigm in linguistics. (Edward Sapir, Whorf’s teacher, was an armchair linguist influenced by Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein’s work on the limits of language. Einstein’s theory of relativity was also an ambient influence.) In 1983 the linguist Ekkehart Malotki published Hopi Time, in which he demolished Whorf’s research "in 677 pages of small print." This complete reversal of cherished assumptions induced a revulsion proportionate to the excitement Sapir-Whorf once generated. For the past several decades we have accepted the Chomskyan version of language—that it is a genetic and therefore universal component of the human brain—and have seen it championed in the pop science press by the untergiversating Steven Pinker.
That Deutscher should rest the bulk of his argument for linguistic relativity on research into color perception seems partly poetic, partly whimsical. But he unearths an unlikely string of stories showing this research stretching back further than we might think. In 1858 the future prime minister of Great Britain William Ewart Gladstone published a sensational book, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Its final chapter, "Homer’s Perception and Use of Color," sparked a debate that has, according to Deutscher, triggered "a war over the control of language between nature and culture that after 150 years shows no sign of abating." Why, Gladstone asked, were there so few references to color in the Iliad and the Odyssey? Why are the predominant colors mentioned black and white? What does it mean that the sea is described in Homer as "wine-dark" or "violet"—colors also ascribed to oxen and sheep? Why is the color that comes to mean "green" in Greek (chloros) applied to faces pale with fear, olive-wood clubs and honey? Why is the sky described as "starry, or broad, or great, or iron, or copper; but it is never blue"?
The Greeks, Gladstone concluded, were color-blind. While his peers heaped ridicule on his theory, another linguist, Lazarus Geiger, launched his own study based on Gladstone’s conclusions, widening the scope to include color epithets in the Old Testament, the Indian Vedas, Icelandic sagas and the Koran. These ancient works were as deficient in the language of color as Homer. Geiger, Deutscher writes, also reconstructed "a complete chronological sequence for the emergence of sensitivity to different prismatic colors. Mankind’s perception of color, he says, increased ‘according to the schema of the color spectrum’: first came the sensitivity to red, then to yellow, then to green, and only finally to blue and violet. The most remarkable thing about it all, he adds, is that this development seems to have occurred in exactly the same order in different cultures all over the world." Geiger’s research seemed to support the view that the color sense among the ancients was anatomically limited—that is, their sight was unevolved. It took a decade before this Lamarckian view was discredited—or, as Deutscher has it, simply co-opted by the other side, since the inheritance of acquired characteristics nicely describes the evolution of cultural changes. The pendulum swung again with the publication in 1969 of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who scientifically confirmed much of Geiger’s hypotheses about the universal acquisition of color sensitivity. Today, MRI experiments seem to confirm that people who process colors through their verbal left brains (where the names for colors are accessed) recognize them more quickly: hence, the language of color enhances our sensitivity.
Color isn’t Deutscher’s only example of linguistic relativity; he lays out the effects that feminine and masculine nouns have on the perception of objects by native speakers of gendered languages. He describes the outstanding "perfect pitch for directions" exhibited by the aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr tribe, whose language situates speakers like a GPS device, by geographic coordinates, rather than left and right, front and behind, a system known as egocentric coordinates. Through the Language Glass is ostensibly an argument for a rehabilitated Whorfian view of language: that language molds us in the image of the culture in which it is born. But Deutscher keeps coming back to color, and to stories about color—"my obsession with color," he calls it. The joy he takes in color—as well as, it must be said, gendered language ("How tedious it would be if bees weren’t ‘she’s’ and butterflies ‘he’s,’ if one didn’t step from feminine pavements to masculine roads, if twelve masculine months didn’t crowd inside one feminine year")—is what keeps aloft stories about how a language can stamp a mind with epithets: a yellow school bus; a red, red rose; a wine-dark sea. Or about how it can give us a J.Crew catalog of spectra: celery green, celadon, jade, sage. Dove, putty, silver, livid. That the Russians have two distinct concepts of blue—siniy for dark blue, goluboy for light blue—has been shown in experiments to give them an edge on color recognition tests. The linguistic relativist’s position, it turns out, is inherently poetic: bluer, say, rather than Pinker.
The poetic obsession with color has distinctly quotidian uses. In 1875 a train wreck in Lagerlunda, Sweden, gave the scientist Frithiof Holmgren the opportunity to test his theories on the anatomy of vision, which were inspired by the work of Gladstone and Geiger. Despite protestations by railway authorities, Holmgren was eventually granted permission to test employees for color-blindness. Sure enough, thirteen out of 266 railway workers turned out to be color-blind. This data revolutionized the nascent industry and no doubt saved lives. So while the language of color may be a small piece of the language puzzle, the ripple effects can be large. And that’s useful for universalists—those who love the big ideas—to remember. The poet Richard Hugo reminded his students: "Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold." Think small, advises the culturalist. Think celadon.