The surprising pattern behind color names around the world


If I showed you this paint chip and asked
you to tell me what color it is, what would you say? How about this one? And this one? You probably said blue, purple, and brown
— but if your native language is Wobé from Côte d’Ivoire, you probably would have
used one word for all three. That’s because not all languages have the
same number of basic color categories. In English, we have 11. Russian has 12, but some languages, like Wobé,
only have 3. And researchers have found that if a language
only has 3 or 4 basic colors, they can usually predict what those will be. So how do they do it? As you would expect, different languages have
different words for colors. But what interests researchers isn’t those
simple translations, it’s the question of which colors get names at all. Because as much as we think of colors in categories,
the truth is that color is a spectrum. It’s not obvious why we should have a basic
color term for this color, but not this one. And until the 1960s it was widely believed
by anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly. But In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul
Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book challenging that assumption. They had asked 20 people who spoke different
languages to look at these 330 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic
color term. And they found hints of a universal pattern:
If a language had six basic color words, they were always for black (or dark), white (or
light), red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were for black,
white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always for
black, white, and red. It suggested that as languages develop, they
create color names in a certain order. First black and white, then red, then green
and yellow, then blue, then others like brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. The theory was revolutionary. [music change] They weren’t the first researchers interested
in the question of how we name colors. In 1858, William Gladstone — who would later
become a four-term British Prime Minister — published a book on the ancient Greek
works of Homer. He was struck by the fact that there weren’t
many colors at all in the text, and when there were, Homer would use the same word for “colours
which, according to us, are essentially different.” He used the same word for purple
to describe blood, a dark cloud, a wave, and a rainbow, and he referred to the sea as wine-looking. Gladstone didn’t find any references to
blue or orange at all. Some researchers took this and other ancient
writings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind. Later in the 19th century, an anthropologist
named W.H.R. Rivers went on an expedition to Papua New
Guinea, where he found that some tribes only had words for red, white and black, while
others had additional words for blue and green. “An expedition to investigate the cultures on a remote group of islands in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. His brief was to investigate the mental characteristics of the islanders. He claimed that the number of color terms
in a population was related to their “intellectual and cultural development”. And used his findings to claim that Papuans
were less physically evolved than Europeans. Berlin and Kay didn’t make those racist
claims, but their color hierarchy attracted a lot of criticism. For one thing, critics pointed out that the
study used a small sample size — 20 people, all of whom were bilingual English speakers,
not monolingual native speakers. And almost all the languages were from industrialized
societies — hardly the best portrait of the entire world. But it also had to do with defining what a
“basic color term” is. In the Yele language in Papua New Guinea,
for example, there are only basic color terms for black, white, and red. But there’s a broad vocabulary of everyday
objects — like the sky, ashes, and tree sap — that are used as color comparisons
that cover almost all English color words. There are also languages like Hanunó’o
from the Phillippines, where a word can communicate both color and physical feeling. They have four basic terms to describe color
— but they’re on a spectrum of light vs. dark, strength vs. weakness, and wetness vs.
dryness. Those kinds of languages don’t fit neatly
into a color chip identification test. But by the late 1970s, Berlin and Kay had
a response for the critics. They called it the World Color Survey. They conducted the same labeling test on over
2,600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies. They found that with some tweaks, the color
hierarchy still checked out. Eighty-three percent of the languages fit
into the hierarchy. And when they averaged the centerpoint of
where each speaker labeled each of their language’s colors, they wound up with a sort of heat
map. Those clusters matched pretty closely to the
English speakers’ averages, which are labeled here. Here’s how Paul Kay puts it:
“It just turns out that most languages make cuts in the same place. Some languages make fewer cuts than others.” So these color stages are widespread throughout
the world… but why? Why would a word for red come before a word
for blue? Some have speculated that the stages correspond
to the salience of the color in the natural environment. Red is in blood and in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing. Recently cognitive science researchers have
explored this question by running computer simulations of how language evolves through
conversations between people. The simulations presented artificial agents
with multiple colors at a time, and, through a series of simple negotiations, those agents
developed shared labels for the different colors. And the order in which those labels emerged? First, reddish tones, then green and yellow,
then blue, then orange. It matched the original stages pretty closely. And it suggests that there’s something about
the colors themselves that leads to this hierarchy. Red is fundamentally more distinct than the
other colors. So what does all this mean? Why does it matter? Well, it tells us that despite our many differences
across cultures and societies … there is something universal about how humans try to
make sense of the world.

100 thoughts on “The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

  1. I've always wondered why I can't express our "goluboy" color in English and why I have to call it "blue" when it's not blue. And now I finally realized…

  2. AJAJSJSJS pensé q era Vox el partido español y ví el icon en amarillo en vez d verde y m rayé
    (pd: solo entenderan hispano hablantes pero bueno xddd)

  3. Japanese used to use only 4 names for colours
    黒 kuro/black, 白 shiro/white, 青 ao/blue, 赤 aka/red
    Now it naturally has more colours, but some green things are still traditionally called blue, like green apple is 青いりんご – aoi ringo/blue apple.

  4. In spanish, we use almost the same system than russians, but in Spain almost all the youtubers use only "azul" instead "celeste" for the sky-blue color

  5. research made by scientists about different human development in remote parts of the world oboviously racist claims for Vox… 😀

  6. Me, an artist, replying to the starting question: Cobalt, a very dark Lavender, and a coffee brown
    Video: general color names
    Me: a

    Edit: I adORE the ways some of these languages and cultures utilize such descriptive linguistics instead of just having basic terms for colors. It’s how I think about color too, so it actually makes me really happy to know that there are societies that developed with such endearment for the beauty of their surroundings, and, in the case of some, I appreciated the attention to the emotions that such visuals elicit! Descriptive linguistics and cultural difference make me so happy ☆
    The less social science-y stuff is quite interesting too! I’m certainly more invested in cultural information, but the way that light influences our world as an element of sorts is also something fun to contemplate

  7. in Austria and I guess in Germany as well, black and white are often claimed not to be actual colors, but rather absence of color, which is why it surprised me to hear that black and white are the most named colors.
    we learned red, blue and green (or was it yellow? I don't remember) to be the primary colors, so I was kinda expecting those

  8. In Kazakh, idk why, blue is sometimes used instead of green. Although the language has the word "green" but we still say "blue apple", "blue tea".

  9. Word "paint" in Russian comes from word meaning "red". BTW, Red Square isn't "red", but "beautiful" – another obsolete meaning of red in Russian (and not only). And it's impossible to have "red" hair in Russian unless you dye them the same color as "subscribe" button, natural color called "рыжий" (ryzhiy) which is kinda mix of red and yellow, however, comes from the same root as "red" in English, but closer to word "rust", which in its turn, much better describes natural color of red hair 🙂

  10. Paul Kay и Brent Berlin: просто изучают цвета.
    Все остальные: вы рассисты!!!

  11. In Polish language we have:
    Czerwony, niebieski, zielony, żółty, pomarańczowy, różowy, biały, czarny, kremowy, szary, błękitny, bordowy, beżowy, brązowy and fioletowy.

  12. Germany: We have soooooooo many words for all colors and shades but we mostly use the standart names and ad "middle", "light" and "dark" to it, there are a few exceptions where we use the real name but mostly its just one color and if its light or dark or inbetween

  13. Залайкайте коммент,чтоб буржуи думали что тут что то важное

  14. i still don't understand why isn't a word for Celeste in english more than LigHt BluE… cyan its just more the green side..

  15. "Black

    Then

    White are

    All I see

    In my infancy

    Red and yellow then came to be

    Reaching out to me

    Lets me see"
    – Tool – Lateralus

  16. I would like to point out the language distribution map part of Indonesian language. It shouldn't be "bahasa" alone. Bahasa means language in Indonesian, therefore it's better to state Indonesian than bahasa alone. 😀

  17. CHECK THIS COMMENT!
    You are wrong. In Russia we call purple "Fioletoviy". "Purpurniy" is just one of the shades of purple. Even the group of shades, to be sure, which is somewhere between pink and purple, if I'm right.
    And in English, you have Cyan, which is "Biriyzoviy" in Russian. There are much more shades than these 11 that you named. Indigo, cyan, etc.

  18. In dutch we have no word for cyan, we call it "appel blauw zee groen" which translates into "apple blue sea green"

  19. Homer did not say that the sea was the same color as wine. A more literal translation is "wine-dark", as in "it's dark as [red] wine". People know what color the sea is, but what is variable is how dark it is.

  20. I still don’t understand why blue isn’t one of the first colors. Yes, I get that blue is rare in nature, but isn’t the sky a shade of blue? I get that it changes color a lot, but it’s not like it’s not primarily blue

  21. In arabic there's like a color for every color palette but people who use weird colors like "lahmy" (slightly dark red) are often seen as pretentious and annoying

  22. I feel so proud , Indian languages have so many colors described , there are more than 5 words for just white , there are words to differentiate even orange and saffron
    Safed
    Shyam
    Kala
    Laal
    Narangi
    Hara
    Neela
    Baingani
    Sunehra
    Gehua
    Bhura
    Tambai
    Peela
    Firozi
    Gulaabi
    etc

  23. I never get tired of this video! Sometimes I come here to check an info, and end up watching the whole thing!

    I love you, Vox!

  24. I have had a good grade at my philosophy exam thanks to you and this video !
    Kisses from france and keep up the good work

  25. i just realized that in bisaya, the second most used dialect in the philippines, we only have three words for colors: púti (white), ítom (black), and púwa or púla (red). idk if there are other names for colors but some like asul (from spanish, azul) could be used to describe blue but it is very uncommon to use such word rather we just plainly use the word blue

  26. Another mystery is that Finnish and Russian have same word for "blue" despite being totally unrelated languages (sini vs. sininen)

  27. I think we just simply name colours based on objects or concepts. Yellow for example comes from old English geolou, which is related to gold.

  28. Here are the colors in my language: Nepali

    Red – रातो (Raatoh)
    Blue – निलो (Neeloh)
    Yellow – पहेंलो (Paahayloh)
    Green – हरियो (Haareeyoh)
    Black – कालो (Kaloh)
    White – सेतो (Saytoh)
    Brown – खैरो (khairoh)
    Pink – गुलाबि (Gulabi); meaning rose
    Grey – खरानी (Kharaanee); meaning ash
    Purple – कलेजी (Caalaygee); meaning liver-y

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