What color is the sky? What about the ocean? Or the grass? These may seem like simple questions with easy answers. The sky is blue. So is the ocean. Grass is green. Bananas are yellow.
If you speak English, this is all very obvious. But what if you speak a different language? Your answers to these kinds of questions may change in surprising ways — and not just because the words you use sound different.
In Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia, a traditional song opens with a line about mountains touching the blue sky. The Kyrgyz word kok (pronounced like cook) means blue. Yet people also walk through kok grass. “We use kok for green color,” says Albina Ibraimova, a former English teacher in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz has another word for green, but it’s not as common.
Like many Kyrgyz people, Ibraimova also speaks Russian. In Russian, the sky is goluboy (GOL-uh-boy). That means “blue.” However, Russians would not call the ocean goluboy. That color is siniy (SEE-nee). Goluboy and siniy are usually translated as light blue and dark blue. But to a Russian speaker they are as different as pink and red are to someone who speaks English.
All people share the same type of brain with senses that work the same way. The human eye contains light-detecting cells called rods and cones. Three different types of cones capture a vast rainbow of around 1 million different hues. In rare cases, a person may have fewer types of cones than usual. That causes color-blindness. There are also reports of an even rarer condition that adds a fourth type of cone. These people may see many more colors than the rest of us.
Unless you have one of these rare conditions, it doesn’t matter if you speak Kyrgyz, Russian or English. You’ll see the same shade of sky. You just might name and categorize that color differently than someone who speaks another language. You may similarly name and categorize smells, sounds, directions, family relationships and other experiences differently. Why? And what’s going on in the brain when it encounters familiar or unfamiliar categories? Researchers who study languages, psychology and the brain are on the case.
Read more: Science News for Students