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The Fascinating Way That Words Can Change How We Perceive Colors

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The colors we see in the world aren't only a function of our eyesight. The language we speak can impact the colors we recognize, as Lancaster University researchers Aina Casaponsa and Panos Athanasopoulos explain on The Conversation.

The number of words a given language has for colors can vary widely, from only a few—the Bassa language, spoken in Liberia, has two terms, one for the warm end of the color spectrum and one for the cool end—to languages like English (up to 11 terms) and Japanese (16 terms, as a 2017 study found).

Researchers have even proposed a hierarchy related to which colors a language names depending on the total terms it has. If a language only has two terms, they are almost always related to black and white (dark and light). If they have three, that third color is almost always red. And so on into green, yellow, and blue.

Which colors have names in a particular language influences the colors we see. Japanese, Russian, and Greek, for instance, include terms that differentiate between light blue and dark blue. While an English speaker might look at a sky blue shirt and a navy blue shirt and say, "Look, a pair of blue shirts!" a Japanese speaker would disagree, just as we might disagree with someone who speaks Bassa about whether red, orange, and yellow are all one color. However, if you spend enough time immersed in a language that has fewer color terms, it appears that the way you describe color may narrow—according to one study, Greek speakers who spend a lot of time in the UK tend to stop distinguishing between two different blues, ghalazio and ble, and begin lumping them into a single category of blue.

The impact goes beyond shirts, of course. While modern Japanese has two distinct words for blue and green, Old Japanese had one term for both of them, ao. This historic link between the two colors still exists in some uses. Japanese stoplights use ao as the color for "go"—meaning that sometimes, they use blue instead of green. Several other languages historically had one term that can refer to either green or blue—what linguists call "grue"— including Vietnamese, Welsh, and Pashto.

It seems that in general, we are better at distinguishing between warm colors like red and yellow than cool colors like blue and green. In an October 2017 study, cognitive scientists found that across languages and cultures, people tend to find it easier to communicate about warm colors than cool when given a grid of colored chips. The researchers hypothesized that the colors we are able to describe have to do with what's important to us: "Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored." They also suggested that the reason some languages develop more color words than others has to do with industrialization.

After studying Bolivian Spanish speakers, the Amazonian hunter-gatherer group called Tsimane' that has relatively few color categories, and English speakers in Boston, researchers found that the Tsimane' people did not often describe familiar natural objects (like, say, an unripe banana) using color, but they used more color words to describe artificially colored objects (like a red cup). Industrialization, they hypothesized, increases how useful language for color is, since the only way to distinguish between certain objects (plastic cups, for instance) might be by their color.

[h/t BBC]

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The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top
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If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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