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.

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  • 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.

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