Curled up in wooly beige socks and bulky yellow sweater, I was startled to find my socks and sweater almost identical in color. My artist friends would never make this mistake, but apparently I translate what I see into words (beige, yellow) and remember it accordingly. That old red rubber ball turns out to be a match for a sheet of dark orange construction paper. A friend who dislikes pink admires my “light red” shorts and “coral” shirt.
Research confirms that language shapes how we remember color and even how we see it in the moment. Believing primary colors to be universal, I marveled when my Russian instructor taught different words for light blue and dark blue. Do Russians see the world differently from me? Yes, they do. Asked which two of three rectangles looked the same, answers came most quickly from speakers of Russian when the outlier fell in a different color category. Responses were slower from English-speakers, for whom all the rectangles counted as blue, and from Russian-speakers looking at rectangles that were all light blue (or all dark).
If language affects how we see color, what other perceptions does it shape? Sound, smell, facial expression? Words blur distinctions within a category and exaggerate the divide between categories. Yet writers can’t communicate without words.
The lesson for me as a writer is not to eliminate categories but to categorize more finely. Rose, crimson, scarlet, mahogany. Acrid, fetid, noisome, putrid. Astonish, astound, amaze, flabbergast. It might not only enliven my writing but also sharpen my perception of the world around me.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.