Questions for ‘Is the sky really blue? It depends on what language you speak’

a photo of a yak standing on a hilly slope in front of a mountain peak. The sky is perfectly blue and clear of clouds

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country in Central Asia. English-speakers may be surprised to learn that the Kyrgyz word kok may refer to the color of the sky or the grass.

Andrew Geiger/Photodisc/Getty Images

To accompany ‘Is the sky really blue? It depends on what language you speak


Before Reading:

  1. Pick a box on this chart and describe its color to a friend. How many guesses does it take your friend to figure out which box you’re looking at? Repeat this guessing game with another few boxes. Are certain groups of colors easier for your friend to guess correctly than others?  
  2. Do you find it easier to describe the color of something or the smell of something? Why or why not? (Bonus: If you speak a language besides English, do you find it easier to describe colors or smells in one language or the other? Why or why not?)

During Reading:

  1.  How are the Kyrgyz and Russian words used to describe green and blue hues different from English? (Hint: We’re talking about a bigger difference than the words simply not sounding the same.)
  2. In 1969, two researchers thought they had found a basic pattern in the way languages add color words over time. What was this pattern? What languages have followed this pattern? What languages have not?
  3. Bevil Conway and Edward Gibson discovered that warm colors tend to be easier to communicate than cool colors. Why do the researchers think this is the case?
  4. What did Asifa Majid discover about the Jahai language using scratch-and-sniff tests?
  5. How did the responses of Jahai and Dutch speakers differ, when those people were asked to describe different scents?
  6. What are some potential impacts of Western languages having fewer words to describe smells than other languages do?
  7. How many different sounds are there in English? How many different sounds exist in all the world’s languages?
  8. What did Nina Kraus discover about English and French speakers’ brainwaves when listening to sounds from different languages?
  9. How early does a person’s brain become tuned to the specific sounds of their native language(s)?

After Reading:

  1. Imagine you spoke a language that used the same word to describe blue and green hues. Or you spoke a language where, instead of describing directions using “left” and “right,” you used “east” and “west.” How might you view the world differently?