The Problem of Colour & Language

The Optical Society of America suggests that the human eye “can identify between 7.5 and 10 million distinct colours” (Wershler-Henry, 2001). The average adult has a vocabulary of up to 50 000 words (Gall, 2009) and although continuously growing, the estimated number of words in the English language is one to two million (Gall, 2009). If every word in the English language was used, we still would only be able to give names to around one tenth of the colours we can recognize.

This is but one of the problems of using language to describe and define our experience of colour. As discussed by a number of writers and philosophers, David Batchelor in Chromaphobia, in particular, language often proves itself wholly inadequate. There are no standards of individual colour perception as colours vary with context, surface texture and viewing conditions. Colour terms are imprecise and have no chromatic content in themselves and there is no way of knowing that my notion of a particular hue is the same as anyone else’s. Trying to devise a system based on language, to accurately define colours is an impossible task.

Despite this we use language to reference colour all the time, we have too. Often there is no other available means of referring to the particular hue we are trying to describe. Even though the language system we use to talk about colour is inherently flawed, it does not mean that it does not warrant study and analysis to enable greater understanding.


About eleanorbydesign

Graduate of MA Graphic Design at London College of Communication

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