The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

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“I showed you this paint chip and asked nyou to tell me what color. It it is what would you say how about this one and this one you probably blue purple and brown n. But if your native language is wob from c. Te.

D. ivoire. You probably would have nused. One word for all three.

That s because not all languages have the nsame number of basic color categories in english we. Have 11 russian has 12 but. Some languages like wob nonly have 3. And researchers have found that if a language nonly 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 ndifferent words for colors.

But what interests researchers isn t those nsimple translations. It s the question of which colors get names at all because as much as we think of colors in categories nthe. Truth. Is that color is a spectrum.

It s not obvious. Why we should have a basic ncolor term for this color. But not this one and until the 1960s..


It was widely believed nby anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly. But in 1969 two berkeley researchers paul nkay and brent berlin. Published a book. Challenging that assumption they had asked 20 people who spoke different nlanguages to look at these 330 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic ncolor term.

And they found hints of a universal pattern nif. A. Language had six basic color words they. Were.

Always for black or dark white or. Nlight . Red green yellow and blue. If it had four terms they were for black nwhite.

Red and then either green or yellow. If it had only three they were always for nblack white and red. It suggested that as languages develop they ncreate color names in a certain order first black and white then red then green nand 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 nin. The question of how we name colors in 1858 william gladstone. Who would later nbecome a four term british prime minister published a book on the ancient greek nworks of homer he was struck by the fact that there weren t nmany colors at all in the text..


And when there were homer would use the same word for colours nwhich. According to us are essentially different. He used the same word for purple nto 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 nblue or orange at all some researchers took this and other ancient nwritings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind later in the 19th century an anthropologist.

Nnamed whr. Rivers went on an expedition to papua new nguinea where he found that some tribes. Only had words for red white and black. While nothers had additional words for blue and green between australia and new guinea.

His brief was to investigate the mental characteristics of the islanders. He claimed that the number of color terms nin. A. Population was related to their intellectual and cultural development .

And used his findings to claim that papuans nwere less physically evolved than europeans. Berlin and kay didn t make those racist nclaims. But their color hierarchy attracted a lot of criticism for one thing. Critics pointed out that the nstudy used a small sample size 20 people all of whom were bilingual english speakers.

Nnot monolingual. Native speakers and almost all the languages were from industrialized nsocieties hardly the best portrait of the entire world. But it also had to do with defining..


What a n. Basic color term is in the yele language in papua. New. Guinea.

Nfor example. There are only basic color terms for black white and red. But there s a broad vocabulary of everyday nobjects like the sky ashes and tree sap that are used as color. Comparisons nthat cover.

Almost all english color words. There are also languages like hanun o nfrom. The phillippines where a word can communicate both color and physical feeling they have four basic terms to describe color n. But they re on a spectrum of light vs dark strength vs weakness and wetness vs ndryness those kinds of languages don t fit neatly ninto a color chip identification test.

But by the late 1970s berlin and kay had na response for the critics. They called it the world color. Survey they conducted the same labeling test on over n2600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies they found that with some tweaks the color nhierarchy still checked out eighty three percent of the languages fit ninto. The hierarchy.

And when they averaged. The centerpoint of nwhere each speaker labeled each of their language s colors they wound up with a sort of heat nmap those clusters matched pretty closely to the nenglish speakers averages. Which are labeled..


Here here s how paul kay puts it n. 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 nthe world.

But why why would a word for red come. Before a word. Nfor blue. Some have speculated that the stages.

Correspond nto 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 nexplored this question by running computer simulations of how language evolves through nconversations between people the simulations presented artificial agents nwith multiple colors at a time and through a series of simple negotiations those agents ndeveloped shared labels for the different colors and the order in which those labels emerged first reddish tones. Then green and yellow nthen blue then orange. It matched the original stages pretty closely and it suggests that there s something about nthe colors themselves that leads to this hierarchy.

Red is fundamentally more distinct than the nother colors. So what does all this mean why does it matter well it tells us that despite our many differences nacross cultures and societies . There is ” ..


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