The Science of Color Naming
By Emily Mynar
Every language has words for colors. But how do we come up with them, and how do we determine which colors get words at all?
Some languages have 11 to 12 basic color terms. In English, for example, we use black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and grey. We can expand on those by describing colors as ‘light pink’ or ‘turquoise’, but we still rely on those 11 basic terms. We might think that all languages have a different name for each of these colors, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Many languages have only a few color terms. For example, the Wobé language, spoken by Kru people in the Ivory Coast, has only three basic color terms, which describe dark, bright, and light.
While different languages often have differing numbers of color terms, some scientists have seen a pattern in which colors were given terms. In the late 1960s, Scientists Berlin and Kay of UC Berkeley hypothesized that (1) there are universal patterns of color naming across languages, and (2) there is a specific order in which languages gain color terms. In other words, if a language only has a few color terms, we should be able to predict which colors they represent.
The World Color Survey (WCS) is a database that was created to further investigate Berlin and Kay’s questions about color naming. It includes color terms from 2,616 people, each speaking one of 110 languages. These languages are largely unwritten, and their societies have had little contact with industrialized society. In order to determine what words each language used for colors, speakers of these languages were each shown 330 individual color chips and asked to name them. Once they had named all the colors and researchers came up with a set of color terms for their language, the person was asked to indicate which of the chips best matched each of their general color terms.
After the experimental data had been collected from individuals, scientists at the WCS combined data from the speakers of each language to determine a general set of color terms. Across all of the languages they surveyed, they found eight significant clusters of color terms: red, green, blue, grue (green-or-blue), yellow-or-orange, brown, pink, and purple. They also found patterns in black, gray, and white based on the responses, leading to 11 universal color terms that we can apply to all languages.
Not only did scientists find universal color terms amongst 110 languages, they also found that languages develop color terms in the same order: first black and white; then red; green and yellow; blue; and then others. Therefore, if a language only has three color terms, they will likely be for black, white, and red.
The world’s languages are extremely diverse, but the patterns the WCS found show that color naming across cultural and societal divides could be more interconnected than we expected. The WCS has raised so many new questions about how languages develop and how we learn them.
Lindsey, D. T., & Brown, A. M. (2009). World color survey color naming reveals universal motifs and their within-language diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(47), 19785–19790. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0910981106