The American Psychological Association alluded recently to a study by Debi Roberson from Essex University who compared how English children learned colours with Himba tribe children, who come from northern Namibia in South West Africa. What was discovered was that Himba children may use one word for a colour while English children would use words that would divide a single colour word into several different colours.

Language Change Colour

For example, in Himba language, the word “serandu” for a single colour would be described as several different colours notably orange, red or pink. Additionally, the word “zoozu,” which represented several dark colours would by English children be divided up into dark red, dark brown, dark blue, black and dark green. Notably, English has 11 words for the most basic colours, which are red, green, orange, yellow, white, black, purple, grey, pink, brown and blue, while Himba only has 5, which cover a broader spectrum of colours under one name.

The Himba’s colour classification is ordered into 5 basic colours which are:

  • Serandu is pink, red and orange
  • Zoozu is black and darker shades of green, blue, red and purple  
  • Vapa is white with some yellow
  • Borou is greens and blues
  • Dumbu is other greens, brown and red.

The way the Himba language view colours are different from western languages and it actually influences how they see things in the world.

In a BBC documentary called Horizon, the Himba people easily and quickly picked out colours which they had names for but if they were given 2 colours which shared the same name in their language they found it difficult to decide on a name for one they were asked to pick because they had no specific name for it.

The green / blue distinction is of particular significance, as the Himba have different ways of describing these colours so it shows that how we see the world is totally different from the way the Himba view it.  Basically, if we as westerners use our version of blue or green to describe say a tranquil bush like setting, the Himba will see it totally differently because of the way they classify and label colour in their language.