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Russian Speakers Are Superior!

At least, apparently, at telling shades of blue apart (thanks to Paul Hsieh (GeekPress) for the pointer) -- and the theory is that it's because conventional Russian "divide[s] what the English language regard as 'blue' into two separate colours, called 'goluboy' (light blue) and 'siniy' (dark blue)."

Obviously, English has many words for many shades of blue, too, but there is indeed a difference between how casual English speech and casual Russian speech treat the colors. In English, "blue" would be commonly used for light blue or dark blue, in a way that isn't so for pink and red. In Russian, one would normally distinguish "goluboy" (light blue) from "siniy" (dark blue) just as one would distinguish "rozoviy" (pink) from "krasniy" (red). In any case,

Researchers led by Jonathan Winawer of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge presented Russian and English speakers with sets of three blue squares, two of which were identical shades with a third 'odd one out'. They asked the volunteers to pick out the identical squares.

Russian speakers performed the task more quickly when the two shades straddled their boundary between goluboy and siniy than when all shades fell into one camp. English speakers showed no such distinction.

But wait! There's one item the Nature article didn't note: In Russian, "goluboy" is also a slang term for a male homosexual. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

Federal Dog:
Man, do I love Russian. What incredible fun. I studied it for years during my MA program, but could not justify continued study to a PhD committee (I got a free ride, which meant the school wanted me in and out as efficiently as possible). I have always profoundly regretted it, but paupers can't be picky.
5.4.2007 3:45pm
Felix Sulla (mail):

But wait! There's one item the Nature article didn't note: In Russian, "goluboy" is also a slang term for a male homosexual. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

So what does this mean for male Russian speakers who found an eponymous conspiracy-titled website? ;-)
5.4.2007 3:51pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
George Lakoff, "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind" discusses this sort of thing. It's been a while, but if I remember correctly, the minimum number of colors in any known language was 2, white (light) and black (dark). Languages that have 3 basic colors typically add red, and so on. I thought English was at the high end with 11 (and I guess/reconstruct those were: black, white, red, green, blue, orange, yellow, purple, gray, pink, brown). Does Russian lack one of those as a fundamental color?

True story: Some great-great-uncle of mine was getting his first driver's license at some advanced age, and he had to take a vision test. His acuity was fine, but he seemed stumped at the color test. His son knew he could tell red from green, and said "Come on, Dad, what's the problem?" and my uncle answered "I can't tell if it's more of a Kelly or a lime."
5.4.2007 3:56pm
SailorDave (www):
Yes, but can the Russians tell the difference between Sienna and Burnt Umber?
5.4.2007 3:59pm
ys:

Yes, but can the Russians tell the difference between Sienna and Burnt Umber?

Yes, but how many "American"-speakers can? (Employees of Benjamin Moore, who presumably can easily tell "Kittery Point Green" from "Thunderbird," excluded)

I thought English was at the high end with 11 (and I guess/reconstruct those were: black, white, red, green, blue, orange, yellow, purple, gray, pink, brown). Does Russian lack one of those as a fundamental color?

All of these are basic in Russian, plus the already much discussed "Blue II" which incidentally makes its way into the main 7 of the Russian rainbow.
5.4.2007 4:16pm
Bruce:
Cerulean blue...
5.4.2007 4:35pm
80s Child (mail):
Some of us are colorblind, you ignorant clod!

You can add as many words as you want to the dictionary but that doesn't change the fact that what some people call purples, browns, reds, and greens look virtually the same.

And I'm not going to believe otherwise until I have some nanotech sunglasses for my cones. :)
5.4.2007 4:35pm
ys:
The English rainbow maps blue and indigo into the Russian "blue I" and "blue II" but the use of indigo is very sparse, so "blue" covers for both in English. As to the rainbow-ending violet (in both languages), this color rounds off the Russian dozen, rather than purple (even though Russian has counterpart words to purple, lilac, and even a couple more - all potentially considered just shades of the same color).
5.4.2007 4:41pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
But wait! There's one item the Nature article didn't note: In Russian, "goluboy" is also a slang term for a male homosexual.


Bozhe moi! In Russian class at UCLA, years ago, I read Vasily Aksyonov's short story "The Light Blue and the Grey" (IIRC, "Goluboy i Zelyonie" or however you'd transliterate it), about a young man's first love affair. Was there a subtext that I missed?

The class broke up laughing at one point when we read the story aloud, and we had to explain to the instructor an apparently inadvertent Beatles reference: the boy and girl are shivering on a cold train platform, and she tells him, "Come and keep your comrade warm!"
5.4.2007 4:46pm
ys:

You can add as many words as you want to the dictionary but that doesn't change the fact that what some people call purples, browns, reds, and greens look virtually the same.

I shudder to think what may have happened when your parents told you to "eat your greens" back then. Might have been as dangerous as driving you car through a traffic light now.
5.4.2007 4:46pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I'm sure there's an "In Soviet Russia..." joke in here somewhere, but I'm missing it.
5.4.2007 5:03pm
Vovan:
Check, this out. The article misses out on "temno-sinii" and "svetlo-goluboii"
5.4.2007 5:15pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Indigo

I've seen rainbows and I've seen the cover of The Dark Side of the Moon, and I've never seen more than 6 colors. I don't know what color indigo is except I guess it's the dark blue color of new dungarees, which are (were) dyed with the extract of that plant.

I have a vague notion that between purple and violet, one is more red and the other is more blue, but I don't know which. Rainbows, and spectra in general, are linear, while color is more circular, allowing magenta, which is a color but not a wavelength. I also don't know if there is any difference between autumn and fall.
5.4.2007 5:18pm
CWuestefeld (mail) (www):
Does this support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis:
Put simply, the hypothesis argues that the nature of a particular language influences the habitual thought of its speakers. Different patterns of language yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of representing the world perfectly with language, because it acknowledges that the mechanisms of any language affect its users.

This has always fascinated me, because (a) my wife speaks English as a 3rd language, so I wonder how that affects her outlook; and (b) I'm a software developer, and in the field of computer languages, this hypothesis is transparently true (otherwise you'd only need one computer language).
5.4.2007 6:40pm
M. Python:
BRIDGEKEEPER: Who approaches the Bridge of Death
Must answer me
These questions three!
Ere the other side he see.
LAUNCELOT: Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your name?
LAUNCELOT: My name is Sir Launcelot.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your quest?
LAUNCELOT: To find the Holy Grail.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your favorite colour?
LAUNCELOT: Blue.
BRIDGEKEEPER: Right. Off you go.
5.4.2007 6:53pm
Lior:
Hebrew makes a similar distinction, between "kachol" (blue) and "tchelet" (light blue). The words have the same root (k.ch.l) but distinct meanings. For example, the second is the standard color of the sky.
5.4.2007 6:58pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
It is also interesting how different languages have different words for colors. I recall that krasny (the best I can do without a Cyrillic keyboard) is usually translated as "red" but is really more what an English-speaker would call "crimson." The Russian oranzheny (orange) actually has a lot more red to it than the English color orange.
5.4.2007 6:58pm
Lior:
Shouldn't post when sleepy; "tchelet" is not a root-and-template formation, in any case probably not etymologically related to "kachol".
5.4.2007 7:01pm
Sisyphus:
Isn't there a good argument that the English language description of "blue" alone is actually more accurate? Colors reflect the wavelength of the light, with their hue affected by the paucity or scarcity of white light included. Thus, pink is really a red with additional white light added. And light blue ("goluboy") is really just true blue ("siniy") with more white light added to lighten the hue.

While I am not surprised that Russians are better at seeing that distinction between lighter and darker blues, given their different words, is what they are describing really a different color on a physical level? I think they may be describing something that is not a difference in the color spectrum with those two words, just as English does with "pink" and "red." Of course, where one draws distinctions in the spectrum of color is arbitrary, but that doesn't mean that it makes sense to draw distinctions outside the light spectrum to describe color.
5.4.2007 7:11pm
zooba:
M. Python:
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your favorite color?
GALAHAD: Goluboy. No, Siniy, AHHHHRRRGGGHHHH!!!
5.4.2007 7:18pm
ys:

It is also interesting how different languages have different words for colors. I recall that krasny (the best I can do without a Cyrillic keyboard) is usually translated as "red" but is really more what an English-speaker would call "crimson." The Russian oranzheny (orange) actually has a lot more red to it than the English color orange.

Are you sure that an average English speaker would readily distinguish within a spectrum of red-crimson-vermilion-scarlet? The words do exist but owe their derivation to the original dye sources or natural colors (as does indigo). I think "red" may cover a range of them in everyday perception in both languages (although "scarlet" has a separate place in English and in Russian due to connections to famous literary works in each case). Interestingly, while the official color of the British tunics was scarlet, they were called "Redcoats" in these parts.
5.4.2007 8:17pm
AW:
I spent a few years in South America and I got used to being corrected when I called something "red" instead of "crimson" (literally: "gindo") and "blue" instead of "sky-blue" (literally: "celeste")
People were really explicit on this. For comparison, imagine a language where red and purple went by the same name.
Yet another reason to travel. I recommend Sucre, Bolivia
5.4.2007 8:47pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
You'd think they'd have a thousand words for snow, too, then.

English has a thousand words for sorrow, if you want to look into fine distinctions, I have it somewhere... here , the result of some grouping algorithm in a thesaurus that I don't remember at the moment.

Okay, it's less than a thousand, but it's a lot.
5.4.2007 9:04pm
ys:

You'd think they'd have a thousand words for snow, too, then.

This, presumably, has been debunked. But if you read "Smilla's Sense of Snow" originally written in Danish, where part of the action takes place in Greenland, there are different Inuit words for snow and ice formations on every page. Not by accident, Smilla is half-Inuit.
As to sorrow - there may be a thousand words (although lots of them on this list are really quite distant from the group root meaning), but there is no real equivalent of the German "Sehnsucht" ("longing" much less "sadness" don't cut it). And how about "Weltschmerz" that simply had to be borrowed into English.
5.4.2007 9:26pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
is what they are describing really a different color on a physical level? I think they may be describing something that is not a difference in the color spectrum with those two words, just as English does with "pink" and "red."

Human color vision is not spectral analysis! The subjective experience of color is more or less the relative and absolute stimulation of different cells which are excited by red, blue, green and luminance. (There's an intermediate step where those excitations are translated into a value on the blue-yellow axis and another axis, I don't get this.)

This is exactly what this is about: To those whose thoughts were shaped by English, plum, amethyst, mauve, and lavendar are just shades of one basic color; and cobalt, azure, Columbia, and sky are just shades of another basic color; while pink is no more a kind of red than brown is a kind of orange. Russians and Israelis apparently don't think that all those blues are variations of the same color.

Interesting that krasny (the best I can do without a Cyrillic keyboard) is usually translated as "red" but is really more what an English-speaker would call "crimson." since the same sources who recommended Lakoff (if not op. cit. itself) thought there was a universal Platonic ideal red, blue, etc. Of course in parts of Massachusetts "crimson" indicates a color closer to what would usually be described as maroon than to scarlet.

otherwise you'd only need one computer language

From time to time I've done software on a product line that was originally written by domain experts who only later brought in professional software engineers. It is interesting to work on stuff that is nominally C or C++ but that was clearly written by somebody who thinks in Pascal or Fortan.
5.4.2007 11:00pm
Truth Seeker:
I heardfrom a female friend that Russian has numerous words for calling someone a bastard (in the "bad person" or jerk sense) because so many of them deserve it.
5.4.2007 11:48pm
Truth Seeker:
According to my slang dictionary there are more than 950 synonyms for sexual intercourse and more than 700 synonyms for vagina in English. Top THAT, Russkis!
5.5.2007 12:01am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
It is interesting to work on stuff that is nominally C or C++ but that was clearly written by somebody who thinks in Pascal or Fortan.

I think in assembler.
5.5.2007 8:01am
NicholasV (mail) (www):
I used to write DOS programs so to me, there are 16 basic colours:

black, dark blue, dark green, dark red, dark cyan, dark magenta, brown, light gray, dark gray, light blue, light green, light red, light cyan, light magenta, orange and white.

I still remember the order after all these years (at least, I'm pretty sure that's right).

Since orange is effectively just light brown in this scheme, I do consider orange and brown to be closely related colours.
5.5.2007 8:32am
NicholasV (mail) (www):
Actually, I made a small mistake, the proper list is:

black, dark blue, dark green, dark red, dark cyan, dark magenta, brown/orange, light gray, dark gray, light blue, light green, light red, light cyan, light magenta, yellow and white.

(replaced brown with brown/orange and orange with yellow)

I generally do consider brown and orange separate colours, as well as red and pink, but in the 16 colour palette they had to share.
5.5.2007 8:42am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I think in assembler.

C has all the flexibility of assembler, with all the power of assembler.
5.5.2007 11:31am
The Cabbage:
Amusing side fact:

My well-dressed younger brother has arrainged the shirts hanging in his closet to Roy G. Biv.

To the best of my knowledge. He doesn't wear anything too goluboyish...
5.5.2007 12:03pm
DrGrishka (mail):
Zhenja,

Russian speakers are superior, period. No need for qualifiers. :)
5.5.2007 1:01pm
Federal Dog:
"My well-dressed younger brother has arrainged the shirts hanging in his closet"


He arraigned them? Geez. What the hell did they do?
5.5.2007 4:41pm
Lavender (mail):
The fact that your brother has a rainbow in his closet is all we need to know, Cabbage. ;)
5.5.2007 5:05pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
C has all the flexibility of assembler, with all the power of assembler.

The quip is all the power of assembler with all the convenience of assembler.

In fact C doesn't ; you never know how to code something so you get efficient machine code out, which can lead to fundemental design choice quandaries beyond the ken of what represents itself as the language.
5.5.2007 5:24pm
Gaius Obvious (mail):
According to my slang dictionary there are more than 950 synonyms for sexual intercourse and more than 700 synonyms for vagina in English. Top THAT, Russkis!

Oh, top it they can. Trust me. Russian has entire dictionaries devoted to nothing but 'mat' as there's so much of it.
5.5.2007 6:56pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
I doubt that the 700 synonyms for vagina reflect nuances.
5.5.2007 7:26pm
Aleks:
Re: otherwise you'd only need one computer language

There actually is just one computer language. The so-calld programming languages are simply more or less divergent dialects of it.
5.6.2007 12:11am