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