Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

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.

100 Replies to “The surprising pattern behind color names around the world”

  • "Black


    White are

    All I see

    In my infancy

    Red and yellow then came to be

    Reaching out to me

    Lets me see"
    – Tool – Lateralus

  • I would like to point out the language distribution map part of Indonesian language. It shouldn't be "bahasa" alone. Bahasa means language in Indonesian, therefore it's better to state Indonesian than bahasa alone. 😀

    You are wrong. In Russia we call purple "Fioletoviy". "Purpurniy" is just one of the shades of purple. Even the group of shades, to be sure, which is somewhere between pink and purple, if I'm right.
    And in English, you have Cyan, which is "Biriyzoviy" in Russian. There are much more shades than these 11 that you named. Indigo, cyan, etc.

  • In dutch we have no word for cyan, we call it "appel blauw zee groen" which translates into "apple blue sea green"

  • Homer did not say that the sea was the same color as wine. A more literal translation is "wine-dark", as in "it's dark as [red] wine". People know what color the sea is, but what is variable is how dark it is.

  • I still don’t understand why blue isn’t one of the first colors. Yes, I get that blue is rare in nature, but isn’t the sky a shade of blue? I get that it changes color a lot, but it’s not like it’s not primarily blue

  • In arabic there's like a color for every color palette but people who use weird colors like "lahmy" (slightly dark red) are often seen as pretentious and annoying

  • I feel so proud , Indian languages have so many colors described , there are more than 5 words for just white , there are words to differentiate even orange and saffron

  • I never get tired of this video! Sometimes I come here to check an info, and end up watching the whole thing!

    I love you, Vox!

  • I have had a good grade at my philosophy exam thanks to you and this video !
    Kisses from france and keep up the good work

  • i just realized that in bisaya, the second most used dialect in the philippines, we only have three words for colors: púti (white), ítom (black), and púwa or púla (red). idk if there are other names for colors but some like asul (from spanish, azul) could be used to describe blue but it is very uncommon to use such word rather we just plainly use the word blue

  • Another mystery is that Finnish and Russian have same word for "blue" despite being totally unrelated languages (sini vs. sininen)

  • I think we just simply name colours based on objects or concepts. Yellow for example comes from old English geolou, which is related to gold.

  • Here are the colors in my language: Nepali

    Red – रातो (Raatoh)
    Blue – निलो (Neeloh)
    Yellow – पहेंलो (Paahayloh)
    Green – हरियो (Haareeyoh)
    Black – कालो (Kaloh)
    White – सेतो (Saytoh)
    Brown – खैरो (khairoh)
    Pink – गुलाबि (Gulabi); meaning rose
    Grey – खरानी (Kharaanee); meaning ash
    Purple – कलेजी (Caalaygee); meaning liver-y

  • Black
    white are
    all I see
    in my infancy
    Red and yellow then came to be reaching out to me
    Let’s me see

  • In georgia we say:
    Brown_color of coffee
    Orange_color of carrots
    Light blue_color of sky
    Pink_color of rose
    Grey_color of ash
    Purple_color of lilac

  • My native language is Hungarian. I will talk about a confusion in the language.
    I got so angry when I was a child. So we sometimes call orange as "orange-yellow" and yellow as "lemon-yellow" like there is the big group "yellow" which can mean orange and the real yellow. So, we were at art class in elementary school and I asked someone to let me use her yellow pen and she asked me "lemon-yellow or orange-yellow?" and I was so angry, like, if I say "yellow" it is "lemon-yellow", if I say "orange" it is "orange-yellow". I did not understand why would one call orange-yellow simply as yellow!?!?!???? I still don't understand. As yellow itself is the color of the lemon, but orange-yellow or orange is the color of the orange. Why do you call the orange color as "yellow" as I always think it is the lemon color. If you want to talk about the orange color then you'd say ORANGE along with yellow. 🙁
    So this is weird in the Hungarian language. What is also weird TO ME that I call magenta color as cyclamen, and some people call it crimson (and some call the purple as crimson), so more word exists for the colors, and I am easily confused as by what people actually mean. :O
    There was also a quarrel about it. xD On a game we were playing dress-up and we set up different rules, once I was in charge of rule making and I made the rule to only wear pink. Someone came with pinkish-purple shoes, and only I said that it was purple, and others said it is pink, and the child-me was offended by this, because the "pink-defenders" were rude towards me because of my different opinion~.~ The color was more of a purple color, leaning towards pink, but still in the purple category in my views. :/

  • solly but that's incorrect for example the himbapeople have no color perseption like we do and f.e old greek had no blue so…

  • Hi you don't have a source for the ending outtro. can i have the name of it? it's quite different from the whimsical classical heard throughout the video.

  • "English has 11 color categories" — I think this also depends on culture/region/upbringing. For some people, colors such as cyan, magenta, violet, indigo, lime, taupe, teal etc are not just variants of the 11 mentioned, they are separate colors. I've always thought of at least cyan & magenta as separate color classes, and always became a bit annoyed when others called them shades of blue/pink.

  • I'm Cameroonian, and in my native language we also have just three words to describe colour:
    Sô: Describes 'black' and any other dark colours
    Fefe: Describes 'white' and closely related colours like grey, beige…
    Pê: Describe 'red' and other bright colours like yellow and orange.
    And not all colours have names….

  • At 1 year of age, my kids learned about which fruits they could eat from the garden. They had no problem distinguishing ripe red tomatoes and raspberries vs unripe yellow/green ones, but they had a very hard time accepting that there were ripe yellow varieties of tomatoes and raspberries. It took both of them until about 4-5 years of age to try a yellow tomato. They were convinced it was unripe, regardless of what I said. Being able to communicate red/purple, the color of many ripe fruits, vs yellow/green, the color of unripe fruit, is very important when a group must harvest their own food.

    Blue is all around us in sky and water, but the blueness isn't important to distinguish for daily existence. My kids really didn't care if the sky was blue or gray or white. They just cared about it being light (day) or dark (night). Also, whether water is good to drink is not dependent on its blueness. It's more about whether it's light/clear (good to drink) or dark/murky (bad to drink).

  • Discovering that someone somewhere is using 3 names for all colors disturbed me more than it should have… What's wrong with you people?!

  • From what I understand by reading the comments is that most languages use objects to name colours. Same in french : orange like the fruit, marron like the dry fruit, rose like the flower etc. This influence the grammar too. Exemple : les lunettes orange without s (plural) because orange is a fruit.

  • first few seconds of video play
    me: pauses ok i got this…. dark teal, dark violet, andddd reddish grey-brown
    video: you probably said blue, purple and brown
    me: :<

  • To all the meme haters, I reckon Vox forgot to mention that not everyone back then had the chance to see an ocean and perhaps their skies were greyish clouded or dark… and water was always seen as clear/transparent no colour… so… makes sense why the colour blue appeared after the industrial revolution

  • i don't agree with the mandarin part. just with the basic color categories, mandarin has more words. then one can expand on them like in english by adding the modifiers light or dark, or have ones like "reddish-orange" or "bluish-green".

  • The ending comment about it being universal sounds like it got carried away; just a bit earlier wasn't it only 80-something percent of the languages in that study that follow the pattern?

  • You know, I'm sick of people throwing the "racist" smear everywhere they possibly can. It's not a sin to consider one group of people less evolved than another, it's called the history of science. This was an enjoyable presentation until you jarringly declared your religion of political correctness.

  • Ah yes, white people, where something as innocent as a study on color is used to label people of color as behind in evolution.

  • In Russian, Salatoviy is to green as Goluboy is to blue, so there are more than 12 basic colours to this language in particular (there are more). The pallette of colours in all the languages is ever evolving. Gotta experience the world in all its many colours whichever way each one of us percieve it 🙂

  • Black, white, red, green, and yellow came about in language first because those were the first colors we evolved to see. We devolved trichromatic vision to tell the difference between a ripe piece of fruit and an unripe or spoiled piece of fruit.

    Through natural selection, fruit began to become more brightly colored to signal it was ready to be eaten (and thus have its seeds spread through the digestive tract of our ancestors.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *