I used to think like Descartes, that there was a real world out there to be perceived and that it could be perceived correctly. People who suggested otherwise were whiners and dreamers and gadflies seeking some nefarious purpose.

Do you know what shook that certainty to its very core?


I did a fair bit of studying abroad in my day, since students with skills applicable to agriculture are always in high demand. As such, I’ve spent time working with irrigation and pest management projects among the Tswana in South Africa and the highlands of Vietnam near Dalat. Tswana and Vietnamese are both very different language, one more straightforward and guttural and the other mellifluous and tonal. Both lovely languages, cruelly overlooked by linguists stumbling over themselves to study Basque or Trobriandese.

But you know what they have in common?

Both use the same word for blue and green.

That’s right. They, and many languages like them, don’t make that distinction. If a precise hue is called for they might specify “like the sky” or “like a leaf” but as far as perception goes, the two might as well be one.

That idea, that simple idea, shook me to my very core.