Work and World

The Surprising Pattern Behind Color Names Around The World

If I showed you this paint chip and asked
you to tell me what color it is, what would you say? How about this one? And this one? You probably said blue, purple, and brown
— but if your native language is Wobé from Côte d’Ivoire, you probably would have
used one word for all three. That’s because not all languages have the
same number of basic color categories. In English, we have 11. Russian has 12, but some languages, like Wobé,
only have 3. And researchers have found that if a language
only has 3 or 4 basic colors, they can usually predict what those will be. So how do they do it? As you would expect, different languages have
different words for colors. But what interests researchers isn’t those
simple translations, it’s the question of which colors get names at all. Because as much as we think of colors in categories,
the truth is that color is a spectrum. It’s not obvious why we should have a basic
color term for this color, but not this one. And until the 1960s it was widely believed
by anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly. But In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul
Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book challenging that assumption. They had asked 20 people who spoke different
languages to look at these 330 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic
color term. And they found hints of a universal pattern:
If a language had six basic color words, they were always for black (or dark), white (or
light), red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were for black,
white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always for
black, white, and red. It suggested that as languages develop, they
create color names in a certain order. First black and white, then red, then green
and yellow, then blue, then others like brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. The theory was revolutionary. [music change] They weren’t the first researchers interested
in the question of how we name colors. In 1858, William Gladstone — who would later
become a four-term British Prime Minister — published a book on the ancient Greek
works of Homer. He was struck by the fact that there weren’t
many colors at all in the text, and when there were, Homer would use the same word for “colours
which, according to us, are essentially different.” He used the same word for purple
to describe blood, a dark cloud, a wave, and a rainbow, and he referred to the sea as wine-looking. Gladstone didn’t find any references to
blue or orange at all. Some researchers took this and other ancient
writings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind. Later in the 19th century, an anthropologist
named W.H.R. Rivers went on an expedition to Papua New
Guinea, where he found that some tribes only had words for red, white and black, while
others had additional words for blue and green. “An expedition to investigate the cultures on a remote group of islands in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. His brief was to investigate the mental characteristics of the islanders. He claimed that the number of color terms
in a population was related to their “intellectual and cultural development”. And used his findings to claim that Papuans
were less physically evolved than Europeans. Berlin and Kay didn’t make those racist
claims, but their color hierarchy attracted a lot of criticism. For one thing, critics pointed out that the
study used a small sample size — 20 people, all of whom were bilingual English speakers,
not monolingual native speakers. And almost all the languages were from industrialized
societies — hardly the best portrait of the entire world. But it also had to do with defining what a
“basic color term” is. In the Yele language in Papua New Guinea,
for example, there are only basic color terms for black, white, and red. But there’s a broad vocabulary of everyday
objects — like the sky, ashes, and tree sap — that are used as color comparisons
that cover almost all English color words. There are also languages like Hanunó’o
from the Phillippines, where a word can communicate both color and physical feeling. They have four basic terms to describe color
— but they’re on a spectrum of light vs. dark, strength vs. weakness, and wetness vs.
dryness. Those kinds of languages don’t fit neatly
into a color chip identification test. But by the late 1970s, Berlin and Kay had
a response for the critics. They called it the World Color Survey. They conducted the same labeling test on over
2,600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies. They found that with some tweaks, the color
hierarchy still checked out. Eighty-three percent of the languages fit
into the hierarchy. And when they averaged the centerpoint of
where each speaker labeled each of their language’s colors, they wound up with a sort of heat
map. Those clusters matched pretty closely to the
English speakers’ averages, which are labeled here. Here’s how Paul Kay puts it:
“It just turns out that most languages make cuts in the same place. Some languages make fewer cuts than others.” So these color stages are widespread throughout
the world… but why? Why would a word for red come before a word
for blue? Some have speculated that the stages correspond
to the salience of the color in the natural environment. Red is in blood and in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing. Recently cognitive science researchers have
explored this question by running computer simulations of how language evolves through
conversations between people. The simulations presented artificial agents
with multiple colors at a time, and, through a series of simple negotiations, those agents
developed shared labels for the different colors. And the order in which those labels emerged? First, reddish tones, then green and yellow,
then blue, then orange. It matched the original stages pretty closely. And it suggests that there’s something about
the colors themselves that leads to this hierarchy. Red is fundamentally more distinct than the
other colors. So what does all this mean? Why does it matter? Well, it tells us that despite our many differences
across cultures and societies … there is something universal about how humans try to
make sense of the world.
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