Linguistic Facts About Color

We tend to think of colors as ideas which all humans agree on – grass is green, flames are orange, the sky is light blue – even if different languages have different names for these colors.

As English speakers, we also tend to think of color names in terms of the “basic” ones and the more specific, secondary ones (e.g. turquoise, ochre). Think of the words that are taught to young children for color. A quick look at baby books shows that English generally has has 11 basic color words*:

list of colors

Many people are surprised to learn, therefore, that different languages do not consider the basic colors to be the same. Some New Guinea Highland languages, for example, still have terms only for black and white (perhaps better translated as “dark” and “light”). Hanuno’o language, spoken in the Philippines, has only four basic color words:
black, white, red and green.

Looking at the chart below: Berlin & Kay’s landmark study (1969) of 98 languages showed that if a language has a name for a color in a higher-numbered column it always has a name for the ones to the left (i.e. if a language has only 2 color words they will always be white and black; if it has 5 they will always be white, black, red, green and yellow, etc.).

Berlin & Kay's color table

Although some have since critiqued this study, the notion remains that “basic” colors may be relative for a person and may be influenced by his/her language. Linguist Stephen Pinker confirmed in the 2007 update of his classic treatise “The Language Instinct” that Berlin & Kay’s findings are still essentially accepted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that people can remember and sort colored objects more easily if their language has a name for that color. Here are some other specific examples of how different colors are dealt with in various languages:

  • Latin originally lacked a generic color word for “gray” and “brown” and had to borrow its words from Germanic language sources.
  • Classical Greek is said to not have had different names for blue and black
  • Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of “coal” from that of “darkness”
  • Russian has two different basic words for blue and light blue (синий and голубой)
  • Hungarian has two different basic red words – bordó (darker reds) and piros (lighter reds)
  • Shona language (a Bantu language from Southern Africa) has no one word for our “green” concept; they have one word for yellowish-green, and a different word for bluish-green.
  • Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green, instead using one term for both. Linguists sometimes use the term “grue” to describe such words. This refers not only to some lesser-known Native American and African languages, but to some multimillion-speaker Asian ones as well.
  • In Vietnamese, both tree leaves and the sky are described by the color word xanh.
  • In Thai, the word เขียว means green, but is also used to describe the sky.
  • In both Japanese and Korean, the distinction between green and blue is not always made. For example, in both, a green traffic light can be called the “blue” light. In Japanese, a green apple is a “blue apple”.
  • Hindi has no standard word for the color “gray”. However, lists for child or foreigner Hindi language learning include “saffron” [केसर] as a basic color.
  • Bilingual speakers of English and Kwakwa’la (a native language of Vancouver Island in Canada) demonstrated that they use the words“yellow” and “green” when speaking English but refer to the catch-all term ibenxa for both colors when speaking Kwakwa’la.
  • Some languages have color verbs, e.g. Lakhota (a Native American language of the Sioux family). As an example, the verb gigí means “to be rusty brown”, and skaská means “to be white”.

It should be pointed out that popular/everyday concepts of “basic” color are often different from scientific ones, no matter what language is being discussed. For example, English speakers use the mnemonic device “Roy G. Biv” to memorize the sequence of colors in a spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) – but few English
speakers would call indigo a “basic” color. Incidentally, English is not the only language with such a mnemonic device. Russian, for example, has this one:

Russian color mnemonic

* “Gray” is also spelled “grey”, which is sometimes referred to as a British spelling, although that distinction seems to be on the wane. Nowadays you will hear that it is simply spelled both ways) – The “basic” word in English for purple color is sometimes “violet”. – Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this analysis that “black” and “white”
may not, strictly/scientifically speaking, be “colors”.


Sources:
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution” (1969)
David Crystal “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” (1987)
Victoria A. Fromkin “Linguistics” (2000)
Aneta Pavlenko, Bilingualism and Thought (Chapter 21) from “Handbook of
Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Approaches” (2005).
Judith F. Kroll & Annette M.B. De Groot, eds.
Steven Pinker “The Language Instinct” (1994)

COLOR AND CULTURE

Cultural color associations can differ widely. Western brides consider a white dress to be traditional, and in Anglo-American culture, wearing “something blue” is equally traditional. In some Asia/Pacific countries, however, it is customary for brides to wear red. We wear black to funerals; in India it is common to wear white. In Western cultures,
purple is often associated with royalty – an association which does not exist in other places. Christians think of heaven as white or blue – in the Koran, the term for “greenness” is found in several verses to describe the state of the inhabitants of paradise. For the Chinese, the color red is strongly associated with good luck, an association most
Westerners don’t have. In traditional Cherokee culture, colors are associated with the four directions: blue (north), white (south), red (east) and west (black).

Flag colors often symbolize countries, to stronger or lesser degrees. “Red, white and blue”, as a combo, signals “America” to Americans, but not necessarily to others. Colors can also signify religious identity. In UK cities where Catholic and Protestants have a history of conflict, the use of green (Catholicism) or Orange (Protestantism) are seen as almost taboo by opposing socio-religious groups.

It follows, then, that colors are used in very different ways in different color idioms across languages. Let’s just take green as an example. In English alone, “he is green” can mean, depending on the context: 1. He is inexperienced 2. He is envious 3. He is environmentally aware. However, green has other associations in other languages such as fear (French), anger (Thai, Italian), off-color sexual content (Spanish), and nausea (Mandarin Chinese).

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