The Surprising Pattern Behind the Names of Colors Around the World

Peo­ple in South Korea, where I live, often ask if I don’t find the Kore­an lan­guage awful­ly hard. I reply by ask­ing them what they imag­ine the most dif­fi­cult part might be. Almost every­one has the same answer: “There are so many words for col­ors.” (Many add, with a strange­ly con­sis­tent speci­fici­ty, that there are so many words for yel­low.) Though each new lan­guage one learns presents a unique set of chal­lenges, that set does invari­ably include mem­o­riz­ing the names of the col­ors all over again. And as with any ele­ment of gram­mar or vocab­u­lary, some lan­guages do make this more dif­fi­cult than oth­ers, divid­ing the vis­i­ble spec­trum up with a set of more numer­ous, sub­tler dis­tinc­tions than those made by one’s native tongue.

But then any lan­guage, no mat­ter where it orig­i­nat­ed, ulti­mate­ly has to describe the very same col­ors present in the phys­i­cal world. The Vox video above shows what the ways in which they vary in so doing, and more so the ways in which they don’t, reveal about lan­guage itself. Eng­lish has eleven “basic col­or cat­e­gories,” the video’s nar­ra­tor says, while Russ­ian, for exam­ple, has twelve. But some lan­guages, like Wobé of Côte d’Ivoire, have as few as three.

In those cas­es, lan­guage researchers have found that they can pre­dict what those few col­or cat­e­gories will be. In the late 1960s, UC Berke­ley’s Paul Kay and Brent Berlin found that “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.” See their book, Basic Col­or Terms: Their Uni­ver­sal­i­ty and Evo­lu­tion.

So it appears that, though specifics var­ied, lan­guages tend­ed to come up with their col­or terms in the same basic order. But “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.” Cog­ni­tive sci­ence and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence research fur­ther sup­port this hier­ar­chy with red at the top, green and yel­low low­er down, and blue low­er still. This 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.” Some­thing uni­ver­sal, cer­tain­ly, but an infini­tude of small dif­fer­ences as well: there­in lies both the chal­lenge and the fas­ci­na­tion of not just lan­guage but human inter­ac­tion itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colour, the 19th-Cen­tu­ry “Col­or Dic­tio­nary” Used by Charles Dar­win (1814)

A Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­ors: Dutch Book From 1692 Doc­u­ments Every Col­or Under the Sun

Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors: The 1810 Trea­tise That Inspired Kandin­sky & Ear­ly Abstract Paint­ing

The Vibrant Col­or Wheels Designed by Goethe, New­ton & Oth­er The­o­rists of Col­or (1665–1810)

What It’s Like to Be Col­or Blind and See Art in Col­or for the First Time

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Simon Whyatt says:

    “Blue, on the oth­er hand, was fair­ly scarce before man­u­fac­tur­ing” — sounds like a com­ment made by researchers who are spend­ing too much time inside a lab… 😁

  • I have the hots for Britt Ekland says:

    When­ev­er I’ve learned a for­eign lan­guage (in my case, it’s Span­ish, Ger­man and Russ­ian), col­ors are some­thing that we learn the first year, as expect­ed. Sure enough, all three lan­guages are prac­ti­cal­ly the same in terms of how they define col­ors. Indeed, in Ger­man most of the col­or names sound like what they are in Eng­lish; the excep­tion is schwarz, the Ger­man word for black (whose Eng­lish cog­nate is swarthy).

  • Laura says:

    “Blue, on the oth­er hand, was fair­ly scarce before man­u­fac­tur­ing.” That rea­son­ing seems like it was made to fit the find­ings. What about the sky and water? Yes, water can appear brown or green or sil­ver. But also often blue, as does the sky.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.