All the colors of the rainbow (and beyond)…

Jun 16, 2010 by

To continue with our theme of lexical divergencies, let’s consider color terms. It has been long known that languages differ as to which colors and even how many they choose to encode with basic color terms. To be considered basic, a color term must be: (1) monoleximic (have one lexeme, often one morpheme; e.g., green but not dark green or olive green), (2) frequent in use and (3) acquired early by children. Speakers of a language typically agree as to what constitutes basic color terms in that language.

The color wheel below represents six basic rainbow color terms in English: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet (red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-violet and violet-red are not basic color terms).

In a seminal study, published in Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969), Brent Berlin and Paul Kay proposed that the kinds of basic color terms a language has, such as black, brown or red, are predictable by the number of color terms in the language. They posited seven types of languages. Type I languages have only two terms, meaning roughly ‘dark’ (covering black, dark colors and cold colors such as blue) and ‘bright’ (covering white, light colors and warm colors such as red). Languages with three colors terms (Type II languages) add red to this distinction, thus the three most basic colors are black, white, and red. Additional color terms are added in a fixed order: first green and/or yellow (first one, and then the other). So languages with four basic color terms have words for ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’ and ‘gree’ or ‘yellow’, and languages with five basic color terms have both ‘green’ and ‘yellow’. Next comes ‘blue’, so all languages distinguishing six basic colors contain terms for ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’. These colors roughly correspond to the sensitivities of the retinal ganglion cells, leading Berlin and Kay to argue that color naming is not merely a cultural phenomenon, but is one that is also constrained by biology. This is in direct contradiction to the infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which theorizes that perception is shaped by language, rather than vice versa as Berlin and Kay proposed.

Further basic color terms that may be added to the lexicon are (in any order): ‘brown’, ‘orange’, ‘pink’, ‘purple’ and/or ‘gray’. English belongs to this type of language as it has eleven basic color terms (brown, gray, black, white and pink in addition to the six basic rainbow colors in the color wheel above). Finally, a basic term for ‘light blue’ may be added (see below).

Berlin and Kay’s work has had a widespread influence, but since its publication the constraints in color-term ordering have been substantially loosened, both by Berlin and Kay in later publications, and by various critics.

But things are even more complicated than may seem from Berlin and Kay’s original study: as I said in an earlier posting, the world does not come in nicely prepackaged units of meaning to be denoted by words. So what is different colors for one language may be grouped under the same color term for another language. For example, Mandarin qīng and Japanese ao cover both ‘blue’ and ‘green’, which are considered by speakers of these languages to be shades of the same color.

Similarly, languages vary as to which hues are split into different colors on the basis of how light or dark they are. For instance, English uses distinct basic color terms for ‘red’ and ‘pink’ and for ‘orange’ and ‘brown’ based on lightness. To English speakers, these pairs of colors, which are objectively no more different from one another than light green and dark green, are conceived of as belonging to different categories.

Russian makes the same red-pink and orange-brown distinctions, but it also makes a further distinction between sinii and goluboi, which English speakers would simply call dark blue and light blue. To Russian speakers, sinii and goluboi are as separate as krasnyj ‘red’ and rozovyj ‘pink’ or oranzhevyj ‘orange’ and korichnevyj ‘brown’. Hence, a Russian child has seven basic rainbow colors (with goluboj in addition to the six basic rainbow colors in the color wheel above); see the picture below:

The same is true in Hebrew, where kaxol ‘blue’ is distinguished from lighter shades of txelet (‘light blue’). Note, however, that the fairly light shade of blue on the Israeli flag is considered kaxol, hence the flag is called kaxol-ve-lavan ‘blue-and-white’.

Interestingly, the Hungarian language has two words for ‘red’: piros and vörös. These are considered basic color terms in the sense that one is not a sub-type of the other (as the English ‘scarlet’ is of ‘red’). The word vörös is related to vér ‘blood’, so when an actual difference in color is referred to (as on a color chart), vörös usually refers to the deeper hue of red. However, the two words are also used independently of the above in collocations: piros is generally used to describe inanimate, artificial things, or things seen as cheerful or neutral, such as a red road sign, the red line of Budapest Metro, a holiday shown in red in the calendar, the red nose of a clown, some red flowers (those of a neutral nature, e.g. tulips), red peppers and paprika, red card suits (hearts and diamonds), red traffic lights, red light district, red stripes on a flag. In contrast, vörös typically refers to animate or natural things (biological, geological, physical and astronomical objects), as well as serious or emotionally charged subjects, such as red army, red wine, red carpet (for receiving important guests), red hair or beard, red lion (the mythical animal), the Red Cross, the Red Sea, red blood cells, some red flowers (those with passionate connotations, e.g. roses), red fox, names of ferric and other red minerals, red copper, the color of blushing with anger or shame. Curiously, the word piros is acquired by children first.

The natural/artificial distinction also comes into play in Irish Gaelic, which has two words for ‘green’: glas denotes the green color of plants, while uaithne describes artificial greens of dyes, paints etc. This distinction is made even if two shades are identical.


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  • Ivana

    Hello, professor Asya,
    Fascinating post!
    A memory from childhood came to my mind as I read your post. I remember my excitement as a child when I got my collection of 64 colored pencils, Faber Castel brand. There was this particular shade of green which I simply loved, called 'verde-agua' in my native language (green water). My sister would insist such color belonged to the blue shades rather than the green ones, in spite of the color name. Several times we would diverge on other shades as well. She would say it was blue; I would say it was green. And we spoke the same language! When it comes to different languages, though, it seems color terms are way more complicated. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating topic, worth the study for sure!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Dear Ivana,
    Thank you for sharing your color story. It's interesting that you had disagreements with your sister, not a brother. It seems to me that men and women often disagree about classifying shades of color, although research doesn't seem to support that. We'll talk more about colors in class tomorrow.