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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 brownbut if your native language is Wobé fromte 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.

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  • They weren't the first researchers interested in the question of how we name colors.

  • In 1858, William Gladstonewho 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 claims that the number of color terms in a population was related to their "intellectual and cultural development".

  • And he 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 of the languages were from industrialized societieshardly 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 objectslike 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 a physical feeling.

  • They have four basic terms to describe colorbut 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...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 worldbut 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.

If I showed you this paint chip and asked you to tell me what color it is, what would you say?

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The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

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    Kristi Yang posted on 2017/05/17
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