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 choose 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.
红色 绿色 黄色 和蓝色
If it had four terms,
they were for black, white, red,
则是黑色 白色 红色
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.
紫色 粉色 橙色和灰色
The theory was revolutionary.
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 texts,
and when there were,
Homer would use the same word
for “colours which, according to us, are essentially different.”
去表示“在我们看来 颜色 有本质区别”
He used the same word for purple
to describe blood, a dark cloud, a wave, and a rainbow,
来描述血 乌云 波浪和彩虹
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 spectulate that earlier societies were color blind.
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 have 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 he 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
一方面 批评指出 这项研究使用的样本量少
— 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 versus dark,
strength versus weakness, and wetness versus 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.
他们发现 经过一些调整 色彩阶层理论依然成立
83% 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.
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 human is trying to make sense of the world.