Colourful Language

Jun 06 2012

Language and thinking

I have always been fascinated by colour (and spent much of my time as a PhD student using colour to prove the validity of some of the methods I was using). The language of colour is particularly fascinating. Like smell, our human ability to detect different colours is vastly in excess of our ability to describe what we can perceive. According to Berlin and Kay, there are no more than eleven terms which are commonly used to describe the abstract properties (hues) of colours, as Inspector Insight wrote in a previous article.

Although flawed in several respects, the Berlin & Kay study is fascinating to read and very much in tune with the latest thinking in linguistics and cultural studies, which places far more emphasis on the ability of language to shape thinking and behaviours (rather than in-built biological traits and ‘universal’ grammars).

Roman Jakobson wrote that, ‘languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey’. The differences between languages are not in the differences between what they allow speakers to express, but rather in what information they oblige speakers to express. For example, if I say in English (my native tongue and sadly my only fluent one), ‘I spent yesterday evening with a neighbour, I am not compelled to tell you whether the neighbour was male or female (or other). However, if I was speaking in French or German or Russian, I would be compelled to share that information even if I felt that it was none of your business, whereas in English I only share that information if I want to.

In English I am compelled to tell you when the event happened (past, present or future) but in some languages, such as Chinese, I don’t have to specify time. Again, that does not mean that in Chinese you cannot indicate the time of an event, merely that you are not compelled to do so, as it not a standard convention. Thus language shapes our thinking not in what it enables us to express but in what it forces us to say (behaviour is all about conventions).

The language of colour

Berlin and Kay’s work dates from 1969, and is an anthropological study of colour hierarchy and universality across different languages. They have two main findings. Firstly, there do appear to be universal terms for colour which are ¬†consistent across languages. Secondly, the evolution of these terms follows a consistent path as a culture and language evolve.

The evolution is straight forward,. even in primitive languages there is a distinction between light and dark (white and black). Red is the next colour to be identified as a distinctive hue, and then either green or yellow are added to the list, followed by the other of the two (the order varies across cultures). Blue is the next colour to follow, and then more complex colours are added, usually brown first and then (in any order), purple, orange, pink and grey.

According to Berlin and Kay, this means that there can be no language with terms for just black, white and green, or just yellow and blue (and none have been found). Colour language evolves in a predictable sequence. Although there are some counter-examples of this which have been found since their original work, the findings are robust across most languages. And although the colour terms don’t always mean quite the same thing (French ‘brun’ is not the same as English ‘brown’) the similarities are far greater than the differences. Of course, many colour terms evolve from nature and the senses and the description of objects and experiences in nature (the origins of the word for red in many languages can be traced back to the word for blood).

Eleven and counting

Berlin and Kay’s first finding was that there are eleven universal colour ‘categories’: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey. Their second finding was that if there are fewer than eleven categories encoded in a language, then the following rules apply (see sequence above):

  1. All languages contain terms for white and black
  2. If a language contains 3 terms, then it contains a term for ‘red’
  3. If a language contains 4 terms, then it contains a term for ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ (but not both)
  4. If a language contains 5 terms, then it contains terms for both ‘green’ and ‘yellow’
  5. If a language contains 6 terms, then it contains a term for ‘blue’
  6. If a language contains 7 terms, then it contains a term for ‘brown’
  7. If a language contains 8 or more terms, then it contains terms for ‘purple’, ‘orange’, ‘pink’ & ‘grey’ or some combination of these

Although a few exceptions have been found to this sequence, and a lot of heated debate has been generated, the exceptions are far far rarer than the examples which follow the rules. Debate continues over why this sequence happens, and in ancient days it was attributed to the developing colour vision of man. While some differences exist in the colour vision of different cultures (there are some genetic differences which lead to slight differences in sensitivity across the spectrum), the key to this development is the cultural ‘usefulness’ and relevance of colour names as society and especially technologies develop.

Colour naming demonstrates that language goes hand in hand with culture in shaping our development, driving our thinking and behaviours in specific directions. As William Shakespeare wrote, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.


Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution by Brent Berlin & Paul Kay (1999)

Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour by Philip Ball (2008)

Through the Language Glass Darkly: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutsche (2011)

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