Monthly Archives: October 2009

Wocky-Bocky; or, the general public

I found this in Conrad Roth’s review of Michael Neo Palaeologus His Grammar, by his Father Stephen N. Palaeologus:

The language of the Grammar is, in fact, utterly delightful, and possibly its chief selling-point. . . . Wocky-Bocky, the name of an Indian chief in a story by Artemus Ward, is resurrected to mean ‘the general public’.

Now this, it must be admitted, is perfect. So perfect that I intend to resurrect it myself. (I almost wish I were a more politically oriented person, so that I might have more opportunities to refer, say, to the Wocky-Bocky Republic of China, or to a certain rough beast which I should of course rechristen wockibockiocracy.) This post exists so that I (or, reader, you) can unobtrusively link to it when using the word, in much the same way that one might include a courtesy link to the Wikipedia page for an obscure historical personage mentioned in passing.

Here is the relevant passage from Artemus Ward’s Panorama:

But there were too many of these Injuns–there were forty of them–and only one of me–and so I said–

“Great Chief–I surrender.” His name was Wocky-bocky.

He dismounted–and approached me. I saw his tomahawk glisten in the morning sunlight. Fire was in his eye. Wocky-bocky came very close to me and seized me by the hair of my head. He mingled his swarthy fingers with my golden tresses–and he rubbed his dreadful Thomashawk across my lily-white face. He said–

“Torsha arrah darrah mishky bookshean!”

I told him he was right.

Wocky-bocky again rubbed his tomahawk across my face, and said–“Wink-ho–loo-boo!”

Says I–“Mr. Wocky-bocky”–says I–“Wocky–I have thought so for years–and so’s all our family.”

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Filed under Language, Oddities

The mystery of violet and red solved

Why is red so much more important than violet? I finally found an answer on this page:

As there are around an order of magnitude fewer bluish-violet cone cells than the other two types – and as the other two types are both sensitive to greens – this explains why the human eye is particularly sensitive to variations in the green portion of the spectrum. (For the more pedantic amongst us, the actual ratio of bluish-violet to bluish-green to yellowish-green [i.e., “blue” to “green” to “red”] cone cells is about 1:10:20.)

So the reason red and yellow are the top two colors while violet is an also-ran is simple: there are 20 times as many red/yellow-sensitive cones as violet-sensitive ones. By assuming that “red” cones are specially attuned to red and that the three types of cones are present in equal numbers, I made a mystery out of something that’s really quite straightforward. Remember what the no-nose guy says, kids!

Now I’m going to go read the rest of that page I linked to. It looks like a very clear and thorough explanation of color.

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Filed under Perception

The high Berlin-Kay rank of yellow

In a previous post I wondered why, given that our color vision uses an RGB system, our languages consistently treat the non-primary yellow as more basic than blue and sometimes more basic than green. Well, sometimes you have to step back and question the givens.

The above diagram shows the sensitivity of the three cone types to different wavelengths of light. (It comes from Wikipedia. All I’ve added is the vertical lines dividing the spectrum into “colors.”) Once you see that the sensitivity of the so-called red cone actually peaks at yellow, the latter color’s status as an honorary primary makes more sense.

Now the question is, why is red considered so much more basic than violet? Being both a bookend of the visible spectrum and the region where the “blue” cone’s sensitivity peaks, violet ought to be as important as red and yellow put together — but, while red is universally treated as the very most basic spectral color, violet is not a basic color in any language. (Purple sometimes is, but purple is not the same as spectral violet.) In fact, violet is so unimportant in our color vision that it’s the one spectral color your computer monitor is physically incapable of displaying — and no one notices.


Filed under Perception

Reading: The Qur’an

I finished John Medows Rodwell’s translation of the Qur’an on 22 October 2009.

I suppose it’s inevitable — if unfair — for the Western reader to compare the Qur’an with the Bible. Unfair because the latter is the work of an entire civilization, written by dozens of authors in three languages over a period of a thousand years. One could hardly expect the Qur’an, a single book by a single author, to approach the Bible in scope or depth, and, sure enough, it doesn’t. Muhammad’s book is endlessly repetitious, returning again and again to the same narrow family of themes: the infidels who treated God’s messengers as liars, the folly of joining gods with God, the flames of hell, the shaded gardens beneath which the rivers flow, and so on.

The comparison is also unfair because, if the Bible is greatest story ever told, the Qur’an doesn’t really tell a story at all. Familiar stories, some biblical and others not, are often alluded to and sometimes summarized, but never properly told. If the Bible often seems to tell stories for their own sake, the Qur’an tends to be more interested in the moral — which is almost always the same. The people of Noah treated God’s signs as lies, so God drowned them. The people of Lot treated God’s apostle as a liar, and God rained stones on them. Pharaoh treated God’s — well, you get the idea. There are a few stories which the Qur’an expands in an interesting way, though:

  • In Sura 12, Jacob goes blind with grief over the loss of Joseph and later perceives him by smell. (“I surely perceive the smell of Joseph: think ye that I dote?”) This recalls Jacob’s younger days, when he deceived his own blind father, partly by means of smell, and passed himself off as Esau.
  • Aaron’s golden calf — which in the Qur’an is actually the work of one Samiri, Aaron being guilty only of not preventing him — is not a dumb idol, but is animated by some occult power and lows. When Moses returns and demands, “And what was thy motive, O Samiri?” Samiri’s reply is, “I saw what they saw not: so I took a handful of dust from the track of the messenger of God, and flung it into the calf, for so my soul prompted me.” (Sura 20)
  • Solomon appears (in Suras 27 and 38, for example) as a magician, able to command the winds and the satans and to understand the speech of birds and ants. This aspect of Solomon, the butterfly-who-stamped Solomon, doesn’t really turn up in the Bible.
Conspicuous by their absence are the 72 virgins we hear so much about. The houris of paradise are mentioned often, but the number 72 doesn’t come from the Qur’an. Nor is there much of a focus on martyrdom or smiting the infidels. There’s a bit of “slay them wherever ye find them” in places, but overall the Qur’an is less militaristic than some of its modern-day adherents would lead one to believe. One passage did jump out at me in connection with 9/11, though: “And who shall teach thee what Hell-fire is? It leaveth nought, it spareth nought, blackening the skin. Over it are nineteen angels. None but angels have We made guardians of the Fire: nor have We made this to be their number but to perplex the unbelievers” (Sura 74). Could that be the reason the al-Qaeda guys chose to use 19 hijackers?


Filed under Islam, Scripture

Orange hair

In his collection of Obvious Untruths, Chrs mentions “red” hair:

No person naturally has Red Hair, They only have Orange Hair. Why do people become so hysterical when you suggest that someone has Orange Hair?

Despite the proverbial hotheadedness of orangeheads, I’ve never known anyone to react hysterically to this observation. Rather, it tends to be treated as a bit of quasi-wit of the why-do-we-drive-on-the-parkway-and-park-in-the-driveway variety, rarely eliciting more than a monosyllabic chuckle.

But why do we call orange hair — and orange foxes and purple wine and a lot of other non-red things — “red”? I remember learning about “red” hair as a kid, around the same time that I learned to call brown and peach people “black” and “white,” and being confused by it. Calling things by inacurate color names doesn’t come naturally to kids — they have to be taught it — so why is it so common among adults? It’s not just a quirk of the English language, either. In Chinese, for example, the word for “carrot” literally means “red radish,” and orangutans are called “red-furred apes.” What’s going on here?

Part of it seems to be a preference for what Brent Berlin and Paul Kay called “basic color terms.” After surveying numerous languages, they identified 11 basic color terms, some of which are more basic than others. Donald Brown summarizes their findings as follows:

[i]f a language has only two colors–and all languages have at least two–they are always white and black; if a language has three colors, the one added is red; if a fourth is added, it will be either green or yellow; when a fifth is added, it will then include both green and yellow; the sixth added is blue; the seventh added is brown; and if an eighth or more terms are added, it or they will be purple, pink, orange, or gray. (quoted here)

So the hierarchy goes something like this:

  1. black, white
  2. red
  3. yellow, green
  4. blue
  5. brown
  6. purple, pink, orange, gray
  7. all other colors

In every case I can think of where something is consistently described with an objectively incorrect color term, the term used is always more basic than the actual color. Many orange things (foxes, flames, Yellow trucks) are called “red” or “yellow,” but few if any red or yellow things are called “orange.” Gray dogs and purple violets can be called “blue,” but bluebirds are never called “gray” or “purple.” Human skins come in various shades of brown and pink, but we prefer to call them instead by the most basic of colors: black, white, red, and yellow.

Berlin and Kay would say that English has 11 basic colors and that all other colors are non-basic. If a color is non-basic, you can get away with using a more basic color word instead and no one will look at you strange. Words like “magenta” and “goldenrod” are available if you want to use them, but you can always just say “pink” and “yellow” instead. Basic colors, on the other hand, are mandatory vocabulary. If something is unambiguously blue in color, “blue” is the most basic word you can use for it. You can get less basic if you like (cornflower, navy, turquoise, etc.), but you can’t use a more basic word like “green” or “black.” I think there’s also a middle rank of semi-basic colors like purple an orange. In some situations these words are basic  (if a guy’s wearing an purple T-shirt, you can’t call it “red” or “blue”), but in others they’re not (“red grapes” is okay). The truly basic colors in English are black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue. The semi-basic colors are brown, pink, purple, orange, and gray. Other languages will draw the lines differently (in Chinese, blue is only semi-basic and you can get away with calling the sky “green”) but will presumably always conform to Berlin and Kay’s hierarchy.

Which leads to a more fundamental question: why that particular hierarchy? The most basic colors are certainly not the ones you’d tend to encounter most often in nature. If the purpose of language is to describe what we see, you’d think every language on earth would consider brown a basic color, with red much lower on the hierarchy. You’d also think that at least one of the many languages spoken by Caucasians would have a basic color word for describing their own skin! I mean, how much more basic can you get? But they don’t.

The other obvious theory would be that the basic colors reflect some property of the human eye, but that doesn’t quite seem to work, either. As far as the eye is concerned, the basic colors are black and white (rods) and red, green, and blue (cones). So why does yellow outrank blue and sometimes even green? And what’s so special about red that makes it more basic than its fellow primaries?


Filed under Language, Perception