There are apparently a maximum of 11 basic colours that can be described by any culture or language (try counting them - it seems to be true). But there are a myriad more than 11 ways in which colours are perceived and defined - a phenomenon described in a fascinating interview in New Scientist (sub reqd) with Annie Mollard-Desfour (below left), linguist with the French National Research Agency and President of the French Centre of Colour in Paris.
There is, she says, no objective reality of colour. Instead it is an impression, a sensation which forms in the brain from visual stimuli. Consequently, when we try and describe colour we revert to familiar symbols and so the words we choose, and the way in which we choose to use colour in language are often a reflection of our society and our culture. These 'colour words', used in different languages whether in literature or slang, reveal the enormous diversity in the way different cultures view the world.
At its simplest level, colours are attributed with different meaning in different cultures. In France, white is the colour of purity and cleanliness, in China it is the colour of mourning (Annie speculates that part of the reason why Segolene Royale made such a bad impression when she visited China earlier this year was because she wore her campaign colour - white).
Colours and shades can come and go. Some are more popular or even unique to periods in time, in fashion and interiors sure, but also way beyond that. Think about relatively recent notion of an 'Orange Revolution'.
The cultural meaning of colour can also change. In France (and elsewhere in Western culture) the colour Black used to have negative connotations of austerity and mourning, but it became "the colour of youth and rebellion and by extrapolation, of chic."
The way different cultures describe and define colour differs widely. Annie describes how in France the parameters of description are set around hue, brightness (lustre or brilliance), and saturation (depth) with a colour's hue over time having become the dominant descriptive mechanic. Yet in Japan, a colour's brightness is more important than its hue - so the Japanese have multiple words for white for example, to describe lustres from the dullest to the most brilliant.
And perhaps one of the most evident differences are in the social references we attribute to colours. Annie gives us some examples: in France you would use the word 'Bleu' to describe a novice, but in English it is green; a 'blue movie' in English is a pornographic film but as a french person she would describe that film as 'Pink'.
And finally, colour words become more difficult to translate the further away you go or the more exotic the culture. Some cultures (like China) describe colours in terms of emotions, whilst others (including some African) "talk of colours as being rough, smooth, laughing, deaf, talkative, hard or soft". One tribe in the Philippines even recognises colours as being 'humid' or 'dry'. I wonder if, when we think of which colour we'd describe as 'talkative', we'd think of the same one...?