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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 an 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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The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

12137 Folder Collection
Kristi Yang published on July 30, 2017    bettyteacher translated    Kiara reviewed
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