Color Linguistics Survey Finds Key Similarities Between Cultures

No language has words for all the blues of a wind-churned sea or the greens and golds of a wildflower meadow in late summer. Globally, different languages have divvied up the world of color using their own set of labels, from just a few to dozens.

The question of how humans have done this—ascribe a finite vocabulary to the multitude of perceivable colors—has been long studied, and consistent patterns have emerged, even across wildly divergent languages and cultures. Yet slight differences among languages persist, and what is less understood is how the differing communicative needs of local cultures drive those differences. Do some cultures need to talk about certain colors more than others, and how does that shape their language?

In a new study, researchers led by Colin Twomey, a postdoc in Penn’s MindCORE program, and Joshua Plotkin, a professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Biology Department, address these questions, developing an algorithm capable of inferring a culture’s communicative needs—the imperative to talk about certain colors—using previously collected data from 130 diverse languages.

Their findings underscore that, indeed, cultures across the globe differ in their need to communicate about certain colors. Linking almost all languages, however, is an emphasis on communicating about warm colors—reds and yellows—that are known to draw the human eye and that correspond with the colors of ripe fruits in primate diets.

The work, a collaboration that included Penn linguist Gareth Roberts and psychologist David Brainard, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The fact that color vocabularies could be an efficient representation of the communicative needs of colors is an idea that’s been around for 20 years,” says Twomey. “It struck me that, OK, if this is our idea about how color vocabularies are formed, then we could go in reverse and ask, ‘Well, what would have been the communicative needs that would have been necessary for this vocabulary to arrive at its present form?’ It’s a hard problem, but I had an intuition that it was a solvable one.”

Read more: Technology Networks

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