Name your color

Jul 8, 2011 by

As was discussed in earlier postings, the cross-linguistic range of color terms is quite complex and languages differ as to how the treat the color spectrum (e.g., see how Hanunoo does it). No surprise then that children have much trouble with learning the color terms of their native language.

Already Charles Darwin was startled by his own children’s failings when it came to color words, writing in 1877:

“They could not name the colors, although I tried repeatedly to teach them.”

And even though many present-day parents think that their small children have the color terms down pat, an experimental study conducted by a team of cognitive science researchers at Stanford University shows it is not so. According to Melody Dye, one of the researchers on the team:

“…even after hours and hours of repeated training on color words, children’s performance typically fails to noticeably improve, and children as old as six continue to make major color naming errors. This is seriously bizarre when you consider all the other things that children at that age can do: ride a bike, tie their shoes, read the comics, and – mistake a blue cupcake for a pink one? Really?”

As it turns out, a typical toddler can use colors appropriately in common phrases, such as “yellow banana”, “blue sky” and “red fire truck” and can even correctly answer familiar questions such as “What color is a tomato?”. This apparent mastery of color words is what gives the parents the conviction that their kids are color experts. But their confidence is shaken quite a bit when they realize that blind children are capable of the same feat. Both blind and seeing children can learn to use color words in context simply by paying attention to how things usually get talked about: for example, “red” tends to come up in connection with “tomato” and “fire-truck” but not so much with, say, “ice-cream”. Similarly, “blue” does come up very often with “cupcake”. Thus, if the familiar context is taken away, most two- and three-year old kids are stumped. They cannot correctly identify colors in a lineup or accurately use color terms in novel scenarios.

This suggests that children — and perhaps to some extent adults too — view colors as essential properties of typical objects. This is supported by the fact that many color terms (in adult language) — the so-called descriptive color terms — come from the names of objects that are (typically) of that color: think about salmon, rose, saffron and lilac (vs. pink, yellow or purple). One interesting example of a descriptive color term in English is orange: originally denoting a fruit, this word was borrowed from Sanskrit or Tamil or Persian (depending on the source) and became an established color term only in mid-20th century; before that time artist’s palettes called the color yellow-red.

Moreover, let’s examine how color terms are used in adult language. Many objects can change their color from one stage of their existence to another, making color a so-called Stage-level property (vs. the so-called Individual-level properties, that is essential properties of an entity). Such changes in color can be due to either external factors (e.g., The house was grey and now it’s white — it’s been painted) or internal factors (e.g., The tomato was green and now it’s red — it’s ripened). The distinction between Stage-level and Individual-level properties is typically illustrated with the contrast between available (Stage-level) and altruistic (Individual-level). That the distinction is relevant to language/grammar is shown by the ungrammaticality of Individual-level predicates in presentational there-sentences: note the ungrammaticality of *There are firemen altruistic (by contrast with the well-formed There are firemen available). By this test, color terms appear to belong to the Individual-level category of properties; hence, the deviant nature of *There are apples green. In this sense, color appears to be like material or geographical origin: note the ungrammaticality of *There are chairs wooden or *There are paintings Dutch.

Note also how we use color predicates in context: a sentence like Use green apples for this recipe asks for some Granny Smith apples rather than unripened Red Delicious or Gala apples!

So next time you see a blue cupcake or a purple elephant, just marvel at how bizzarre such combinations of object and color are!

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