Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate

Last updated

The concept of linguistic relativity concerns the relationship between language and thought, specifically whether language influences thought, and, if so, how. This question has led to research in multiple disciplines—especially anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and philosophy. Among the most popular and controversial theories in this area of scholarly work is the theory of linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). An often-cited "strong version" of the claim, first given by Lenneberg in 1953, proposes that language structure determines how we perceive the world. A "weaker version" of this claim posits that language structure influences the world view of speakers of a given language but does not determine it. [1]

The hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition. Also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions: the strong hypothesis and the weak hypothesis:

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.

Cognitive science interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition. Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology. The typical analysis of cognitive science spans many levels of organization, from learning and decision to logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. The fundamental concept of cognitive science is that "thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures."


There are two formal sides to the color debate, the universalist and the relativist. The universalist side claims that the biology of all human beings is all the same, so the development of color terminology has absolute universal constraints. The relativist side claims that the variability of color terms cross-linguistically (from language to language) points to more culture-specific phenomena. Because color exhibits both biological and linguistic aspects, it has become a deeply studied domain that addresses the relationship between language and thought. [2] In a 2006 review of the debate Paul Kay and Terry Regier concluded that "The debate over color naming and cognition can be clarified by discarding the traditional 'universals versus relativity' framing, which collapses important distinctions. There are universal constraints on color naming, but at the same time, differences in color naming across languages cause differences in color cognition and/or perception." [3]

Color term word or phrase that refers to a specific color

A color term is a word or phrase that refers to a specific color. The color term may refer to human perception of that color which is usually defined according to the Munsell color system, or to an underlying physical property. There are also numerical systems of color specification, referred to as color spaces.

Paul Kay is an emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, United States. He joined the University in 1966 as a member of the Department of Anthropology, transferring to the Department of Linguistics in 1982 and now working at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI). He is best known for his work with anthropologist Brent Berlin on colour: Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) ISBN 1-57586-162-3. More recently, he has worked in the area of Construction Grammar with Charles J. Fillmore, authoring the textbook Construction Grammar. He is currently working on an extension of Construction Grammar called Sign-Based Construction Grammar, authoring a book on this topic with Charles J. Fillmore, Ivan Sag and Laura Michaelis.

The color debate was made popular in large part due to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's famous 1969 study and their subsequent publishing of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution . [4] Although much on color terminology has been done since Berlin and Kay's famous study, other research predates it, including the mid-nineteenth century work of William Ewart Gladstone and Lazarus Geiger, which also predates the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, as well as the work of Eric Lenneberg and Roger Brown in 1950s and 1960s.

Overton Brent Berlin is an American anthropologist, most noted for his work with linguist Paul Kay on color, and his ethnobiological research among the Maya of Chiapas, Mexico.

<i>Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution</i> book by Brent Berlin

Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) (ISBN 1-57586-162-3) is a book by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. Berlin and Kay's work proposed that the basic color terms in a culture, such as black, brown, or red, are predictable by the number of color terms the culture has. All cultures have terms for black/dark and white/bright. If a culture has three color terms, the third is red. If a culture has four, it has yellow or green.

William Ewart Gladstone British Liberal politician and prime minister of the United Kingdom

William Ewart Gladstone was a British statesman and Liberal Party politician. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served for twelve years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer four times.

Universalist view

Berlin and Kay

The universalist theory that color cognition is an innate, physiological process rather than a cultural one was introduced in 1969 by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in their book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution . [4] Their study was intended to challenge the formerly prevailing theory of linguistic relativity set forth by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Berlin and Kay found universal restrictions on the number of basic color terms (BCTs) that a language can have, and on the ways the language can use these terms. The study included data collected from speakers of twenty different languages from a range of language families. Berlin and Kay identified eleven possible basic color categories: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. To be considered a basic color category, the term for the color in each language had to meet certain criteria:

Edward Sapir American linguist and anthropologist

Edward Sapir was an American anthropologist-linguist, who is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the early development of the discipline of linguistics.

Benjamin Lee Whorf American linguist

Benjamin Lee Whorf was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that differences between the structures of different languages shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world. This principle has frequently been called the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the principle of linguistic relativity, because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein's principle of physical relativity.

  1. It is monolexemic (for example, red, not red-yellow or yellow-red.)
  2. It is monomorphemic (for example, blue, but not bluish)
  3. Its signification is not included in that of any other color term (for example, crimson is a type of red)
  4. Its application must not be restricted to a narrow class of objects (for example, blonde is restricted to hair, wood and beer)
  5. It must be psychologically salient for informants (for example, "the color of grandma's freezer" is not psychologically salient for all speakers)

In case of doubt, the following "subsidiary criteria" were implemented:

  1. The doubtful form should have the same distributional potential as the previously established basic color terms (for example, you can say reddish but not salmonish)
  2. Color terms that are also the name of an object characteristically having that color are suspect, for example, gold, silver and ash
  3. Recent foreign loan words may be suspect
  4. In cases where lexemic status is difficult to assess, morphological complexity is given some weight as a secondary criterion (for example, red-orange might be questionable)

Berlin and Kay also found that, in languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:

  1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange or gray.

In addition to following this evolutionary pattern absolutely, each of the languages studied also selected virtually identical focal hues for each color category present. For example, the term for "red" in each of the languages corresponded to roughly the same shade in the Munsell color system. Consequently, they posited that the cognition, or perception, of each color category is also universal. [4]

Munsell color system

In colorimetry, the Munsell color system is a color space that specifies colors based on three properties of color: hue, value (lightness), and chroma. It was created by Professor Albert H. Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century and adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the official color system for soil research in the 1930s.

List of colours in various languages
Afrikaans RooiBlouGeelGroenSwartWitPurperPienkOranjeBruinGrys
Albanian KuqeBluVerdhëJeshileZezëBardhëPurpurtRozëPortokalliKafeGri
Arabic أحمر (Ahhmar)أزرق (Azraq)أصفر (Assfar)أخضر (Akh-Dhar)أسود (Aswad)أبيض (Abyadh)بنفسجي (Banafsajiy)وردي (Wardyi), زهري (Zahri)برتقالي (Burtuqaaliy)بني (Bonniy)رمادي (Ramaadiy)تركوازي (Turkuwaazi)
Assamese ৰঙা (Ronga)নীলা (Nila)হালধীয়া (Halodhia)সেউজীয়া (Xeuzia) ক’লা (Kóla)বগা (Boga)বেঙুনীয়া (Bengunia)গুলপীয়া (Gulopia)কমলা (Komola)মটীয়া (Motia)ধোঁৱা বৰণীয়া (Dhü͂a boronia)
Bulgarian Червен (Červen)Син (Sin)Жълт (Žãlt)Зелен (Zelen)Черен (Cheren)Бял (Bjal)Лилав (Lilav)Розов (Rozov)Оранжев (Oranžev)Кафяв (Kafjav)Сив (Siv)
Catalan VermellBlauGrocVerdNegreBlancPorpraRosaTaronjaMarróGris
Chinese 紅色 (Hóngsè)藍色 (Lánsè)黄色 (Huángsè)綠色 (Lǜ sè)黑色 (Hēisè)白色 (Báisè)紫色 (Zǐsè)粉紅色 (Fěnhóngsè)橙色 (Chéngsè)棕色 (Zōngsè)灰色 (Huīsè)青色 (Qīngsè)
Croatian/Serbian/Slovene CrvenaPlavaŽutaZelenaCrnaBijelaLjubičastaRužičastaNarančastaSmeđaSiva
Czech/Slovak ČervenáModráŽlutáZelenáČernáBíláFialováRůžováOranžováHnědáŠedáAzurová
Danish RødBlåGulGrønSortHvidLillaLyserødOrangeBrunGråTurkis
Dutch/Flemish RoodBlauwGeelGroenZwartWitPaarsRozeOranjeBruinGrijs
English RedBlueYellowGreenBlackWhitePurplePinkOrangeBrownGreyCyan
Estonian PunaneSinineKollaneRohelineMustValgeLillaRoosaOranžPruunHall
Finnish PunainenSininenKeltainenVihreäMustaValkoinenViolettiPinkkiOranssiRuskeaHarmaaTurkoosi
French RougeBleuJauneVertNoirBlancVioletRoseOrangeMarron or BrunGrisCyan
German RotBlauGelbGrünSchwarzWeißLilaRosaOrangeBraunGrauTürkis / Cyan
Greek Κόκκινο (Kókkino)Μπλε (Ble)Κίτρινο (Kítrino)Πράσινο (Prásino)Μαύρο (Mávro)Άσπρο (Áspro)Μοβ (Mov)Ροζ (Roz)Πορτοκαλί (Portokalí)Καφέ (Kafé)Γκρι (Gkri)Γαλάζιο (Galázio)
Hindi लाल (Laal)नीला (Neela)पीला (Peela)हरा (Haraa)काला (Kaala))सफ़ेद (Safed)बैंगनी (Baingani)गुलाबी (Gulaabi)नारंगी (Naarangi)भूरा (Bhoora)धूसर (Dhoosar)आसमानी (Aasmaani)
Hebrew אדום (Adom)כחול (Kakhol)צהוב (Tsahov)ירוק (Yarok)שחור (Shakhor)לבן (Lavan)סגול (Sagol)ורוד (Varod)כתום (Katom)חום (Khoom)אפור (Afor)תכלת (Tekhelet)
Hungarian Piros / VörösKékSárgaZöldFeketeFehérLilaRózsaszínNarancsBarnaSzürkeTürkiz
Icelandic RauðurBlárGulurGrænnSvarturHviturFjólublárBleikurAppelsínugulurBrúnnGrár
Irish DeargGormBuíGlasDubhBánCorcraBándeargFlannbhuí / OráisteDonnLiath
Italian RossoBluGialloVerdeNeroBiancoViolaRosaArancioneMarroneGrigioAzzurro
Japanese 赤 (Aka)青 (Ao)黄 (Ki)緑 (Midori)黒 (Kuro)白 (Shiro)紫 (Murasaki)桃色 (Momoiro) / ピンク (Pink)橙色 (Daidaiiro) / オレンジ (Orenji)茶色 (Chairo)灰色 (Haiiro)水色 (Mizuiro)
Javanese abang / abritbirukuningijo / ijemireng / cemengputih / pethakungu / wungu / kembang térôngjambonoranye / kuning télôcoklat / soklatabu-abubiru muda
Korean 빨간 색 (Ppal-Kkan-Saek)파란 색 (Pa-Ran-Saek)노란 색 (No-Ran-Saek)초록 색 (Cho-Rok-Saek) / 녹 색 (Nok-Saek)검은 색 (Geo-Meun-Saek)하얀 색 (Ha-Yan-Saek)보라 색 (Bo-Ra-Saek)분홍 색 (Bun-Hong-Saek)주황 색 (Ju-Hwang-Saek) / 오렌지 색 (O-Ren-Ji-Saek)갈 색 (Gal-Saek)회 색 (Hoe-Saek)물 색 (Mul-Saek)
Latvian SarkansZilsDzeltensZaļšMelnsBaltsPurpursarkanaRozāOranžsBrūnsPelēks
Lithuanian RaudonaMėlynaGeltonaŽaliaJuodaBaltaVioletinėRožinėOranžinėRudaPilkaŽydra
Norwegian RødBlåGulGrønnSvartHvitLillaRosaOransjeBrunGråTurkis
Persian قرمز (Ghermez)آبی (Aabi)زرد (Zard)سبز (Sabz)سیاه (Siah)سفید (Sefid)ارغوانی (Arghavani)صورتی (Soorati)نارنجی (Naranji)قهوه‌ای (Ghahve-ee)خاکستری (Khakestari)آبی دریایی (Aabi Daryayi)
Polish CzerwonyNiebieskiŻółtyZielonyCzarnyBiałyFioletowyRóżowyPomarańczowyBrązowySzaryCyjan / Turkus
Portuguese VermelhoAzulAmareloVerdePretoBrancoVioletaRosaLaranjaMarromCinzaCiano
Punjabi ਲਾਲ (lāla)ਨੀਲਾ (nīlā)ਪੀਲੇ (pīlē)ਹਰੇ (harē)ਕਾਲਾ (kālā)ਚਿੱਟੇ (ciṭē)ਜਾਮਨੀ (jāmanī)ਗੁਲਾਬੀ (gulābī)ਸੰਤਰੀ (satarī)ਭੂਰਾ (bhūrā)ਸਲੇਟੀ (salēṭī)ਸਿਆਨ (Si'āna)
Romanian RosuAlbastruGalbenVerdeNegruAlbVioletRozPortocaliuMaroGriBleu
Russian Красный (Krasnyj)Синий (Sinij)Жёлтый (Žoltyj)Зелёный (Zeljonyj)Чёрный (Čornyj)Белый (Belyj)Фиолетовый (Fioletovyj)Розовый (Rozovyj)Оранжевый (Oranževyj)Коричневый (Koričnevyj)Серый (Seryj)Голубой (Goluboj)
Spanish RojoAzulAmarilloVerdeNegroBlancoPúrpura or VioletaRosaNaranjaMarrónGrisCian
Swedish RödBlåGulGrönSvartVitViolettSkärOrangeBrunGrå
Tamil சிவப்பு (Civappu)நீலம் (Nīlam)மஞ்சள் (Mañcaḷ)பச்சை (Paccai)கருப்பு (Karuppu)வெள்ளை (Veḷḷai)ஊதா (Ūtā)இளஞ்சிவப்பு (Iḷañcivappu)செம்மஞ்சள் (Cemmañcaḷ)மண்ணிறம் (Maṇṇiṟam)சாம்பல்நிறம் (Cāmpalniṟam)நீர்மம் (Nīrmam)
Thai แดงน้ำเงินเหลืองเขียวดำขาวม่วงชมพูส้มน้ำตาลเทาฟ้า
Turkish KırmızıMaviSarıYeşilSiyahBeyazMorPembeTuruncuKahve RengiGriCamgöbeği
Welsh CochGlasMelynGwyrddDuGwynPorfforPincOrenBrownLlwyd

Additional universalist arguments

A later study supporting this universal, physiological theory was done by Kessen, Bornstein, and Weiskopf. In this study, sixteen four-month-old infants were presented with lights of different frequencies corresponding to different colors. The lengths of habituation were measured and found to be longer when the infant was presented with successive hues surrounding a certain focal color than with successive focal colors. This pattern of response is what is expected when the infants are distinguishing between the focal colors, but not distinguishing between successive hues (i.e. different shades of red are all "red" but "blue" and "red" focal colors are different). This is to say that infants respond to different hues of color in much the same way as adults do, demonstrating the presence of color vision at an age younger than previously expected. Kessen, Bornstein and Weiskopf therefore claim that the ability to perceive the same distinct focal colors is present even in small children. [5]

Habituation is a form of non-associative learning in which an innate (non-reinforced) response to a stimulus decreases after repeated or prolonged presentations of that stimulus. Responses that habituate include those that involve the intact organism or those that involve only components of the organism. The response-system learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences. Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours acquired during conditioning. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process.

Research before Berlin and Kay (1969)

Gladstone and Geiger

In their paper Language and thought: Which side are you on anyway?, Regier et al. discuss the presence of a universalist perspective on the color debate in the mid-nineteenth century.

"In the mid-nineteenth century, various scholars, notably William Gladstone (1858) and Lazarus Geiger (1880), noted that the speakers of ancient written languages did not name colors as precisely and consistently – as they saw it – as the speakers of modern European languages. They proposed a universal evolutionary sequence in which color vocabulary evolves in tandem with an assumed biological evolution of the color sense". [6]

Gladstone was a Homeric scholar and in his writings, notably Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age , expressed that, because there was virtually a lack of color terminology in Homeric Greek literature, Greeks could probably not see color as we can today.

" ... that the organ of color and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age". [7]

Geiger expanded on Gladstone's ideas by looking at other classic works and hypothesized that man gradually became aware of color over time. He posited the idea that this awareness was connected to the order colors came up in the spectrum, starting with longest wavelengths. [8]

Lenneberg & Roberts

Lenneberg and Roberts presented their paper The Denotata of Color Terms [9] at the Linguistic Society of America in 1953. In this paper they reported their findings on color recall in Zuni speakers. Zuni has one color term for yellow and orange, and Lenneberg and Roberts' study reported that Zuni speakers encountered greater difficulty in color recall for these colors than English speakers, who have available terms to distinguish them. Brown and Lenneberg attributed this effect to the property of codability.

Linguistic codability is the ease with which people can name things and the effects of naming on cognition and behavior. [10]

Brown & Lenneberg

Brown and Lenneberg published A Study in Language and Cognition [11] in 1954, where they discussed the effect of codability on recognition. In their experiment they used a series of Munsell chips to test color recall and recognition in English speakers. Their findings suggested that the availability of a basic color term in a given language affected the retention of that color in recall testing. Brown and Lenneberg linked their study to Lenneberg and Roberts' 1953 findings on color recall in Zuni speakers.

Relativist view

Initially, Berlin and Kay's theory received little direct criticism. But in the decades since their 1969 book, a significant scholarly debate has developed surrounding the universalism of color terminology. Many relativists find significant issues with this universalism. Discussed below, Barbara Saunders and John A. Lucy are two scholars who are prominent advocates of the opposing relativist position. Also, Daniel Everett's work on the Pirahã language of the Brazilian Amazon, [12] a controversial case, found several peculiarities, including what he interpreted as the Pirahã language's lack of color terms in the way those are otherwise defined. Everett's conclusions were met with skepticism from universalists, [13] who claimed that the linguistic deficit is explained by the lack of need for such concepts. [14]

Barbara Saunders

Barbara Saunders believes that Berlin and Kay's theory of basic color terminology contains several unspoken assumptions and significant flaws in research methodology. Included in these assumptions is an ethnocentric bias based on traditions of Western scientific and philosophical thought. She regards the evolutionary component of Berlin and Kay's theory as "an endorsement of the idea of progress" and references Smart's belief that it is "a Eurocentric narrative that filters everything through the West and its values and exemplifies a universal evolutionary process of modernization."

With regard to Berlin and Kay's research, Saunders criticizes the translation methods used for the color terms they gathered from the 78 languages they had not studied directly. Like many others, she also questions the effectiveness of using the Munsell color system in the elicitation of color terminology and identification of focal hues. She feels that "use of this chart exemplifies one of the mistakes commonly made by the social sciences: that of taking data-sets as defining a (laboratory) phenomenon which supposedly represents the real world", and entails "taking a picture of the world for the world and then claiming that that picture is the concept". Finally, she takes issue with the anomalous cases of color term use that she believes Berlin, Kay and Merrifield disregarded in their work on the World Color Survey for the purpose of purifying their results. [15]

In Saunders' 1997 article with van Brakel, they criticize the amount of weight given to the study of physiological color perception as support for the universalism of color terminology. They primarily criticize the idea that there is an autonomous neuro-physiological color pathway, citing a lack of concrete evidence for its existence. [16]

Saunders is also bothered by the overall de-contextualization of color terminology and the failure of universalists to address the limitations of their methodologies. She points out that: [15]

"Ordinary colour talk is used in a variety of ways – for flat coloured surfaces, surfaces of natural objects, patches of paintings, transparent objects, shining objects, the sky, flames, illumination, vapours, volumes, films and so on, all of which interact with overall situation, illumination, edges, textures, patternings and distances, making the concept of sameness of colour inherently indeterminate".

John Lucy

John A. Lucy's criticisms of Berlin and Kay's theory are similar to those of Saunders and other relativists, primarily focusing on shortcomings in research methodologies and the assumptions that underlie them.

Lucy believes that there are problems with how linguistic analysis has been used to characterize the meanings of color terms across languages. Referential range (what a color term can refer to) and grammatical distribution (how the term can be used) are two dimensions Lucy believes are critical to defining the meaning of a term, both of which "are routinely ignored in research on color terms which focuses primarily on denotational overlap across languages without any consideration of the typical use of the terms or their formal status." He also feels that any attempt to contrast color term systems requires understanding of each individual language and the systems it uses to structure reference.

Lucy also believes that there is significant bias present in the design of Berlin and Kay's research, due to their English-speaking and Western points of view. He thinks the use of the Munsell color system demonstrates their adherence to the ideas that "speech is about labeling accuracy" and that "Meaning is really about accurate denotation," which he believes "...both derive directly from the folk understandings of English speakers about how their language works." He refers to Conklin's study of Hanunóo [17] as a demonstration of what a study might reveal about a language's color term system when such bias is not present. He demonstrates that "an 'adequate knowledge' of the system would never have been produced by restricting the stimuli to color chips and the task of labeling" (original emphasis).

In summation, he feels that the approach universalists have taken in researching color term universals sets up a procedure that "...guarantees both their discovery and their form," and that, "It does not really even matter whether the researchers involved are open-minded and consciously willing to recognize relativism as a possible outcome—because the universalist conclusion is guaranteed by their methodological assumptions." [18]

Recent scholarship

Scholarship on color vision has proceeded in three principal domains within the last twenty years. There have been revisions to the Berlin & Kay hypothesis; in response, there have been continued challenges to that hypothesis; and lastly, the field of vision science has expanded to explore hue categorization at a perceptual level, independent of language-based distinctions, possibly offering compromise in the two polar theories.

Revisions of the Berlin & Kay hypothesis

In 1999 Paul Kay and Luisa Maffi published an article entitled Color Appearance and the Emergence and Evolution of Basic Color Lexicons, [19] in which they outline a series of revisions in response to data collected in the World Color Survey (WCS) and to Stephen Levinson and his work on the language Yélî Dnye in Papua New Guinea (see below). [20] While upholding an evolutionary track for the addition of basic color terms (BCTs) to any given lexicon, they outlined a series of three Partition Rules (i.e., superordinate rules that determine the evolution of BCTs):

  1. Black and White (Bk&W): Distinguish black and white.
  2. Warm and Cool (Wa&C): Distinguish the warm primaries (red and yellow) from the cool primaries (green and blue).
  3. Red: Distinguish red.

The ordering of these rules is reflective of the data of the overwhelming majority of languages studied in the WCS. However, exceptions do exist, as was accounted for by Yélî Dnye and other languages within the WCS. Furthermore, they also propose a 0) rule, one which simply states: partition. Such a rule is necessary to motivate the specification of later basic color terms, namely those that can no longer be brought about by application of rules 1)–3).

With respect to the evolution of color terms within a given lexicon, Kay and Maffi further outlined the possibilities of different trajectories of evolution, though all of those numerically possible are not attested in the World Color Survey. Another significant contribution of this article is a discussion of the Emergence Hypothesis (see below), its relation to Yélî Dnye, and its motivation for the authors' revision of evolutionary trajectories.

Using phylogenetic approach, Bowern & Haynie found support for Berlin & Kay hypothesis in the Pama-Nyungan language family, as well as other alternative trajectories for gaining and losing color terms. [21]

Opposition to Berlin & Kay et al.

Here are three approaches to such critiques:

  1. Those brought about by implications within the taxonomic structure of the B&K model (as seen further in Berlin's treatment of ethnobiological systems of classification [22] )
  2. Those as seen in research in color perception in children and infants
  3. Those brought about by specific fieldwork

Anna Wierzbicka and universals of visual semantics

In an article titled The Semantics of Colour: A New Paradigm, [23] Wierzbicka discusses three main critiques of the universalist approach:

  1. The inability to prove the existence of true color terms (i.e., those based on variations in hue) in languages that lack a superordinate word for color in their taxonomies
  2. The lack of inquiry into the semantic range of any given language's assumed color naming.
  3. That the Western universalist tradition "[imposes] on other languages and cultures one's own conceptual grid" and does not reflect " 'the native's point of view'", citing Malinowski in the latter. [24]

With regard to 1), she states that "the basic point ... is that, in many languages, one cannot ask the question, 'What color is it?'" The assumption oscillates between two versions: on the one hand she argues that languages with no superordinate word for color simply do not have minimal color terms. On the other hand, she argues that even if one contests the first point (i.e., agree that languages that lack a word for color still have color terms), the fact that one cannot ask the question she posits (above) means that color is not a salient semantic domain in these languages. In the structure of her Natural Semantic Metalanguage, [25] color does not constitute a semantic "primitive", though she argues for many others cross-linguistically. (For more on the NSM related to color terms, see Theoretical Linguistics 29:3.) [26]

Pitchford & Mullen: The developmental acquisition of basic colour terms

This study [27] compares the evolutionary model of color terms of Berlin & Kay to the acquisition of color terms in children (something which has been thought to lag behind other lexical acquisitions). Their study proceeds to three main questions:

  1. Are color terms acquired late?
  2. Are basic color terms acquired in a fixed developmental order?
  3. What factors may influence the acquisition of basic color terms?

With regard to 1), they find that color terms are not acquired any later than other relevant lexemes to distinguish objects. It had been thought, for example, that since color is not necessarily unique to a given object, and diverse objects are more likely to share common color than a common shape, that color terms lagged behind shape terms in development. This was found not to be the case.

Second, they found no correlation between the order of color term acquisition in children and in languages generally. It was found that gray and brown are learned later in development; there was no preference for the six primary color terms over the remaining three secondary ones. The similarity between the acquisition of these terms in children and in language vocabularies was assumed to be comparable, since even in current notions of the B&K hypothesis the evolutionary order of color terms is thought to be based on universals of neurophysiology. While some studies in neurophysiology have shown greater salience for the basic color terms (and thus correlate their earlier evolutionary status), neurophysiology has not been able to account for such phenomena as intuitive separations of warm and cool colors (the second partition rule posited by Kay [see above] is essential to such early-onset warm/cool distinctions, yet is overridden in language with a yellow/green/blue color term). [19]

Levinson & Yélî Dnye

The Yele language is a language isolate spoken on Rossel Island in Papua New Guinea. Among observations about the class, derivation, usage of, and disagreement over, color naming words in Yele is a critique of the BCT-model's assumption that languages which have not yet fully lexicalized the semantic space of color (as was posited to be universal in the original and subsequent B&K papers [1969 [4] &1978 [28] ]) with the use of all eleven basic color names do so by use of the fewer composite terms that they do possess (by B&K's criteria for Yele, three). As Stephen Levinson argues using methodology similar to that used by B&K for their initial tests and later for the WCS, there are simply regions of the color spectrum for which Yele has no name, and which are not subsumed by larger composite categories, even despite the inventive nature of color terms in Yele that fall outside the criteria for "basic" status. Given the fact that such color naming words are extremely inventive, (a "semi-productive" mode of adjectival derivation is the duplication of related nouns), Levinson argues that this is highly detrimental to the BCT-theory, insomuch that Yele is "a language where a semantic field of color has not yet jelled", and thus one not open to universal constraint. [20]

As Levinson points out, there is evidence that supports the emergence of BCTs through physical objects and words used to signify simultaneous properties such as lightness. As such, these terms do not cohere as a unique, separable semantic domain denoting hue (see Bornstein for this criterion). Over time, though, and through processes of semantic change, such a domain can emerge. In response to work by Levinson and Lyons, Kay dubs this perspective the Emergence Hypothesis (EH). (See Levinson's article for a discussion on the co-existing evolutionary tracks for color words if one accepts both B&K's position and the Emergence Hypothesis.) Kay & Maffi (1999) incorporate the EH into their evolutionary track by removing from their model the assumption that languages begin by fully segmenting the color spectrum. This inverts their Partition Principles (see above), namely by placing 1) and 3) over 0) and 2). That is, languages partially segment the space into black, white, and red (i.e., 1) & 3)), and then the assignment to partition (0)) and split warm and cool colors (2)) accommodates the rest of the space. As Kay & Maffi explain, this is essential to explications of Y/G/Bu terms (e.g., Cree), which were previously incompatible with the model. However, this model also introduces the possibility for previously divergent evolutionary paths for color terms, since it is only after the rearrangement and reassignment of the Partition Principles that a language that derived from EH origins joins with a language that originally partitioned the whole of the color spectrum. [19]

Vision science and theoretical compatibility

Marc Bornstein's essay Hue Categorization and Color Naming: Physics to Sensation to Perception [29] separates an analytical review of vision science and color naming into three sections:

  1. Categorization: and its aids to both perceptual and cognitive functions generally
  2. Color Vision and Hue Categorization
  3. Color Naming (an unarticulated derivative of the first two ideas [see his companion essay Hue Categorization and Color Naming: Cognition to Language to Culture [30] for a further discussion of this point])

As a result, he summarizes both the findings of vision science (as it relates to color naming) and the linking of three separate but causally related processes within the study of color naming phenomena. He states that "the physics of color, the psychophysics of color discrimination, and the psychology of color naming are not isomorphic". The color spectrum clearly exists at a physical level of wavelengths (inter al.), humans cross-linguistically tend to react most saliently to the primary color terms (a primary motive of Bornstein's work and vision science generally) as well as select similar exemplars of these primary color terms, and lastly comes the process of linguistic color naming, which adheres both to universal patterns but demonstrates individual uniqueness. While one may have origins in its predecessor, variation among test subjects in vision science and linguistic variation demonstrate that it is not a process of whole causality. In his companion essay, [30] he demonstrates that this process of causality may indeed be reversed, which he explains through a set of "models of development":

  1. Undeveloped
  2. Partially developed
  3. Fully developed

In response, there are three ways that outside experience may affect this development: through (A) induction, (B) modification, or (C) deprivation. Thus the logical possibilities are 1A & 1C; 2A, 2B & 2C; and 3B & 3C. Using this format, he explains that developmental altering in hue categories "entail perceptual 'sharpening' and 'broadening'". He attributes this to either "maturation" (perceptually) or "experience". Such a conclusion is necessarily indeterminate because understanding of why certain hue categories are lost and others induced (cf. developmental processes above) "requires further exacting research". Coming from these two perspectives (i.e., those outlined in the causation above, and the models of development), this leads Bornstein to conclude that "there appear to be nontrivial biological constraints on color categorization [and that] ... the available evidence seems compatible with a position of moderate universality that leads to expectations of probabilistic rather than deterministic cross-cultural correspondence", and that "in color, relativism appears to overlay a universalist foundation". [30]

See also


  1. Trask, R.L. (1999). Language: The Basics. London: Routledge.
  2. Seidner, Stanley S. (1982). Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective. Bruxelles: Centre de recherche sur le pluralinguisme Press
  3. Kay, P., & Regier, T. (2006). Language, thought and color: recent developments. Trends in cognitive sciences, 10(2), 51-54.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Berlin, Brent & Kay, Paul (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Bornstein, M.; Kessen, W.; Weiskopf, S. (1976). "The categories of hue in infancy". Science. 191 (4223): 201–202. doi:10.1126/science.1246610. PMID   1246610.
  6. Regier, T., Kay, P., Gilbert, L., Ivry, B. (2007). Language and thought: Which side are you on anyway?. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from
  7. Gladstone, W.E. (1858). Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. London: Oxford University Press.
  8. Geiger, Lazarus (1880). Contributions to the History of the Development of the Human Race. London: Trübner and Company.
  9. Lenneberg, E., Roberts, J.(1953). The denotata of language terms. Paper presented at the Linguistic Society of America, Bloomington, Indiana.
  10. Day, R.S.(n.d.). Basic Cognition. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Duke University Web Site
  11. Brown, R.; Lenneberg, E. (1954). "A study in language and cognition". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 49 (3): 454–462. doi:10.1037/h0057814.
  12. Everett, Daniel L. (2005), "Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã" (PDF), Current Anthropology, 46 (4): 621–646, doi:10.1086/431525 , retrieved 1 October 2012
  13. Frank, Michael C.; Everett, Daniel L.; Fedorenko, Evelina; Gibson, Edward (2008), "Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition" (PDF), Cognition, 108 (3), pp. 819–24, doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.04.007, PMID   18547557, archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2010, retrieved 14 May 2009
  14. Ira Nevins, Andrew; Pesetsky, David; Rodrigues, Cilene (2009). "Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment". Language. 85 (2): 355–404. CiteSeerX . doi:10.1353/lan.0.0107.
  15. 1 2 Saunders, B. (1995). "Disinterring Basic Color Terms: a study in the mystique of cognitivism". History of the Human Sciences. 8 (7): 19–38. doi:10.1177/095269519500800402.
  16. Saunders, B.; van Brakel, J. (1997). "Are there nontrivial constraints on colour categorization?". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 20 (2): 167–228. PMID   10096997.
  17. Conklin, H.C. (1955). "Hanunóo Color Categories". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 11 (4): 339–344. doi:10.1086/soutjanth.11.4.3628909.
  18. Lucy, J. A. (1997). The linguistics of "color". In C.L. Hardin & L. Maffi (Eds.), Color categories in thought and language (pp. 320–346). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  19. 1 2 3 Kay, Paul; Maffi, Luisa (1999). "Color Appearance and the Emergence and Evolution of Basic Color Lexicons". American Anthropologist. 101 (4): 743–760. CiteSeerX . doi:10.1525/aa.1999.101.4.743. JSTOR   684051.
  20. 1 2 Levinson, Stephen C. (2000). "Yeli Dnye and the Theory of Basic Color Terms". Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 10 (1): 3–55. doi:10.1525/jlin.2000.10.1.3.
  21. "Linguists explore the evolution of color in new study". Science Daily. December 9, 2016. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  22. Berlin, Brent (1992). Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  23. Wierzbicka, Anna (2006). The Semantics of Colour: A New Paradigm. In Pitchford, N.J. & Biggam, C.P. (eds.), Progress in Colour Studies: Volume I. Language and Culture (pp. 1–24). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  24. Malinowski, Branislaw (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  25. Wierzbicka, Anna (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-870003-6.
  26. Kay, Paul (2003). "NSM and the Meaning of Color Words". Theoretical Linguistics. 29 (3): 237–245. doi:10.1515/thli.29.3.237.
  27. Pitchford, Nicola J. & Mullen, Kathy T. (2006). The Developmental Acquisition of Basic Colour Terms. In Pitchford, N.J. & Biggam, C.P. (eds.), Progress in Colour Studies: Volume II. Psychological Aspects (pp. 139–158). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  28. Kay, Paul; McDaniel, Chad K. (1978). "The Linguistic Significance of Meanings of Basic Color Terms". Language. 54 (3): 610–646. doi:10.2307/412789. JSTOR   412789.
  29. Bornstein, Marc H. (2006). Hue Categorization and Color Naming: Physics to Sensation to Perception. In Pitchford, N.J. & Biggam, C.P. (Eds.), Progress in Colour Studies: Volume II. Psychological Aspects (pp. 35–68). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  30. 1 2 3 Bornstein, Marc H. (2007). Hue Categorization and Color Naming: Cognition to Language to Culture. In MacLaury, Robert E., Paramei, Galina V. & Dedrick, Don (Eds.), Anthropology of Color (pp. 3–27). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Semantics is the linguistic and philosophical study of meaning, in language, programming languages, formal logics, and semiotics. It is concerned with the relationship between signifiers—like words, phrases, signs, and symbols—and what they stand for in reality, their denotation.

Cognitive linguistics (CL) is an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from both psychology and linguistics. It describes how language interacts with cognition, how language forms our thoughts, and the evolution of language parallel with the change in the common mindset across time.

A variety of different authors, theories and fields purport influences between language and thought. Psychologists attempt to explain the emergence of thought and language in human evolution.

A linguistic universal is a pattern that occurs systematically across natural languages, potentially true for all of them. For example, All languages have nouns and verbs, or If a language is spoken, it has consonants and vowels. Research in this area of linguistics is closely tied to the study of linguistic typology, and intends to reveal generalizations across languages, likely tied to cognition, perception, or other abilities of the mind. The field was largely pioneered by the linguist Joseph Greenberg, who derived a set of forty-five basic universals, mostly dealing with syntax, from a study of some thirty languages.

Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory has also been applied in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.

Eleanor Rosch Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley

Eleanor Rosch is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in cognitive psychology and primarily known for her work on categorization, in particular her prototype theory, which has profoundly influenced the field of cognitive psychology.

In linguistics, construction grammar groups a number of models of grammar that all subscribe to the idea that knowledge of a language is based on a collection of "form and function pairings". The "function" side covers what is commonly understood as meaning, content, or intent; it usually extends over both conventional fields of semantics and pragmatics.

Many languages do not distinguish between what in English are described as "blue" and "green" and instead use a cover term spanning both. To describe this English lexical gap, linguists use the portmanteau word grue, from green and blue, which the philosopher Nelson Goodman coined in his 1955 Fact, Fiction, and Forecast to illustrate the "new riddle of induction".

Categorical perception is a phenomenon of perception of distinct categories when there is a gradual change in a variable along a continuum. It was originally observed for auditory stimuli but now found to be applicable to other perceptual modalities.

Unique hues

Unique hue is a term used in certain theories of color vision, which implies that human perception distinguishes between "unique" and composite (mixed) hues. A unique hue is defined as a color which an observer perceives as a pure, without any admixture of the other colors. There is a great deal of variability when defining unique hues experimentally. Often the results show a great deal of interobserver and intraobserver variability leading to much debate on the number of unique hues. Another source of variability is environmental factors in color naming. Despite the inconsistencies, often four color perceptions are associated as unique; "red", "green", "blue", and "yellow".

Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs and performance on various cognitive tasks. The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.

Eve V. Clark is a British-born American linguist. She earned her PhD in Linguistics in 1969, studying with John Lyons at the University of Edinburgh. She worked on the Language Universals Project at Stanford with Joseph Greenberg, and two years later, joined the Linguistics Department at Stanford University. She is currently the Richard Lyman Professor in the Humanities at Stanford.