Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language

October 6th, 2019 by When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic relativity, which held that language shapes perception. Color was the “parade example,” Kay says. His professors and textbooks taught that people could only recognize a color as categorically distinct from others if they had a word for it. If you knew only three color words, a rainbow would have only three stripes. Blue wouldn’t stand out as blue if you couldn’t name it. What’s more, according to the relativist view, color categories were arbitrary. The spectrum of color has no intrinsic organization. Scientists had no reason to suspect that cultures divvied it up in similar ways. To an English speaker like Kay, the category “red” might include shades ranging from deep wine to light ruby. But to Tahitians, maybe “red” also included shades that Kay would call “orange” or “purple.” Or maybe Tahitians chunked colors not by a combination of hue, lightness and saturation, as Americans do, but by material qualities, like texture or sheen. To his surprise, however, Kay found it easy to understand colors in Tahitian. The language had fewer color terms than English. For example, only one word, ninamu, translated to both green and blue (now known as grue). But most Tahitian colors mapped astonishingly well to categories that Kay already knew intuitively, including white, black, red, and yellow. It was strange, he thought, that the groupings weren’t more random. A few years later, back in Boston, he was shooting the breeze with a fellow anthropologist, Brent Berlin, who had worked as a graduate student among speakers of the Mayan language Tzeltal, in Chiapas, Mexico. There, Berlin told Kay, he had encountered exactly the same color categories that Kay had observed in Tahiti, including a single word for grue. “The two languages are as unrelated to each other historically as any two languages can be,” Kay says. And yet they seemed to give rise to a common way of seeing and thinking about color. Either he and Berlin had stumbled upon a one-in-a-million coincidence. Or the relativists were wrong. To solve the puzzle, the young scientists needed more data. In the mid-1960s, they were both hired as professors at the University of California, Berkeley, and with their students’ help, they rounded up native speakers of 20 languages, including Arabic, Hungarian, and Swahili. The researchers showed each speaker 329 standard color chips and asked him or her to name each one’s “basic color term”—the simplest, broadest word that described its shade. Drawing from previous anthropological work, they added color lexicons from 78 additional languages around the world. The results revealed two remarkable patterns, which Kay and Berlin laid out in their 1969 monograph, Basic Color Terms. First, almost all of the languages they examined appeared to have color words that drew from the same 11 basic categories: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Second, cultures seemed to build up their color vocabularies in a predictable way. Languages with only two color categories chunked the spectrum into blacks and whites. Languages with three categories also had a word for red. Green or yellow came next. Then blue. Then brown. And so on. Read more: Nautilus

Do You See What I See?

April 10th, 2019 by In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of color. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn. This moment in July 2014 was just one among many similar experiences Surrallés had during a total of three years living among the Candoshi since 1991. His fieldwork led Surrallés to the startling conclusion that these people simply don’t have color words: reliable descriptors for the basic colors in the world around them. Candoshi children don’t learn the colors of the rainbow because their community doesn’t have words for them. Though his finding might sound remarkable, Surrallés, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, isn’t the first to propose that this cultural phenomenon exists. Anthropologists in various corners of the world have reported on other small tribes who also don’t seem to have a staple vocabulary for color. Yet these conclusions fly in the face of those found in the most influential book on the topic: The World Color Survey, published in 2009, which has at its very heart the hypothesis that every culture has basic color words for at least part of the rainbow. The debate sits at the center of an ongoing war in the world of color research. On the one side stand “universalists,” including the authors of The World Color Survey and their colleagues, who believe in a conformity of human perceptual experience: that all people see and name colors in a somewhat consistent way. On the other side are “relativists,” who believe in a spectrum of experience and who are often offended by the very notion that a Westerner’s sense of color might be imposed on the interpretation of other cultures and languages. Many researchers, like Surrallés, say they stand in the middle: While there are some universals in human perception, Surrallés argues, color terms don’t seem to be among them. It is almost incomprehensible at first to imagine that the rainbow is not viewed similarly by all people, that there might be more, or fewer, colors in the world than we thought, or that someone might not bother to give colors a name. And yet once one gets beyond the initial, startling blow of these ideas, they begin to seem obvious. There are, after all, no actual lines in a real rainbow. There’s no reason to think that orange is any more or less a legitimate color than, say, cyan, or that one culture’s list of colors is more “real” than another’s. Or is there? Read more:

Languages don’t all have the same number of terms for colors – scientists have a new theory why

September 19th, 2017 by People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors. But human language categorizes these into a small set of words. In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. That’s what we have in American English. Maybe if you’re an artist or an interior designer, you know specific meanings for as many as 50 or 100 different words for colors – like turquoise, amber, indigo or taupe. But this is still a tiny fraction of the colors that we can distinguish. Interestingly, the ways that languages categorize color vary widely. Nonindustrialized cultures typically have far fewer words for colors than industrialized cultures. So while English has 11 words that everyone knows, the Papua-New Guinean language Berinmo has only five, and the Bolivian Amazonian language Tsimane’ has only three words that everyone knows, corresponding to black, white and red. The goal of our project was to understand why cultures vary so much in their color word usage. Read more: The Conversation

How different languages came up with words for colors

November 17th, 2016 by It is striking that English color words come from many sources. Some of the more exotic ones, like “vermilion” and “chartreuse,” were borrowed from French, and are named after the color of a particular item (a type of mercury and a liquor, respectively). But even our words “black” and “white” didn’t originate as color terms. “Black” comes from a word meaning “burnt,” and “white” comes from a word meaning “shining.” Color words vary a lot across the world. Most languages have between two and 11 basic color words. English, for example, has the full set of eight basic colors: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, gray, brown, orange and purple. In a 1999 survey by linguists Paul Kay and Luisa Maffi, languages were roughly equally distributed between the basic color categories that they tracked. Read more: Business Insider

Unusual Condition Lets People See Sign Language in Colors

July 19th, 2016 by People who use sign language can experience synesthesia, a rare condition that mixes sensory information from different sources, causing people to see letters in certain colors, or taste words, a new study finds. The study is the first to document synesthesia among sign language users, the researchers said. The people in the study reported that they saw different colors when they watched someone make the signs for various letters and numbers. The finding shows that "synesthesia occurs in sign language as well as spoken language," said study lead researcher Joanna Atkinson, a researcher at the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London. The condition occurs in about 4 percent of the population, including those who experience it with braille letters or while reading sheet music, the researchers said. Synesthesia is thought to happen because of the wiring in the brain, the researchers said. For instance, this wiring may lead to "cross-activation in neural areas that do not usually interact." Read more: Live Science