How Culture Conditions the Colours We See

As part of my research I read an essay entitled How Culture Conditions the Colours We See, by Umberto Eco, included in the book On Signs, edited by Marshall Blonsky .

In this post I have included significant quotes from the essay which are particularly relevent to my research.


“Thus the puzzle we are faced with is neither a psychological nor an aesthetic one: it is a cultural one, and as such it is filtered through a linguistic system. We are dealing with verbal language in so far as it conveys notions about visual experiences, and we must, then, understand how verbal language makes the non-verbal experience recognizable, speakable and effable. ”


“This means that a given culture organizes the world according to given practices or practical purposes, and consequently considers as pertinent different aspects of the world. Pertinence is a function of our practices. ”


“Our discrimination ability for colours seems to be greater: we can detect the fact that hues gradually change in the continuum of a rainbow, though we have no means to categorise the borderlines between different colours. ”


“A trained artist can discriminate and name a great many hues, which the pigment industry supplies and indicates with numbers, to indicate an immense variety of colours easily discriminated in the industry. ”


“The largest collection of English colour names runs to 3000 entries (Maerz and Paul), but only eight of these commonly occur. (Thorndike and Lorge).”


“It seems that Russian speakers segment the range of wavelengths we call “blue” into different portions, goluboj and sinij. Hindus consider red and orange a unified pertinent unit. And against the 3000 hues that, according to David Katz, the Maori of New Zealand recognise and name by 3000 different terms , there are, according to Conklin, the Hanunoo of the Philippines, with a perculiar opposition between a public restricted code and more or less individual, elaborated ones”


“The different ways in which cultures make the continuum of colours pertinent, thereby categorising and identifying hues or chromatic units, correspond to different content systems. This semiotic phenomenon is not independent of perception and discrimination ability; it interacts with them and frequently overwhelms them. ”


“The names of colours, taken in themselves, have no precise chromatic content: they must be viewed within the general context of many interacting semiotic systems.”


“We are animals who can discriminate colours but we are, above all, cultural animals. ”


“I do not think it is possible to found a system of communication on a subtle discrimination between colours too close to each other on the spectrum… we potentially have a great capacity for discrimination, and with ten million colours it would be interesting to compose a language more rich and powerful than the verbal one, based as it is upon no more than forty phonemes. ”


“The fact that a painter.. can recognise and name more colours, the fact that verbal language itself is able not only to designate hundreds  of nuances, but also describe unheard-of tints by examples, periphrases and poetic ingenuity – all this represents a series of cases of elaborate codes. ”


In everyday life, our reactivity to colour demonstrates a sort of inner and profound solidarity between semiotic systems. Just as language is determined by the way in which society sets up systems of values, things and ideas, so our chromatic perception is determined by language.


About eleanorbydesign

Graduate of MA Graphic Design at London College of Communication

One comment

  1. Nice blog about Colour Perception. Thomas Cole was born in England but moved to the United States as a youth. His talents for painting were soon discovered and his works focused on landscapes. Please check out my blog and let me know what you think!

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