How Humans Name Colors

Despite enormous differences in human languages, researchers have long thought there are patterns behind how certain things receive their names. In particular, they’ve noticed similarities in how colors are given terms. There have been theories in the past, but testing the hypotheses has proven difficult. One theory proposed by anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay states that colors are named in a certain order, so that if a language only has three color words, observers can automatically know which colors those are for.

Now, two linguists from Yale have published with a new study that may help provide an answer.

Professor Claire Bowern and former Yale postdoc Hannah J. Haynie studied the Australian Pama-Nyungan language family tree, made up of 189 languages. Spoken by aborigines throughout 90% of the country’s landmass, the researchers also chose to study the tree because of its 6,000-year history, giving it a large history. Bowern was quoted saying, “We need large numbers of languages to get a good sample size and a good variety of colors…The Pama-Nyungan societies are also relatively similar in terms of material culture and the sorts of ways they make use of resources for color.”

They said their findings showed support for Berlin and Kay’s theory. Bowern and Haynie say there are seven stages for naming colors in language. The first of these involves creating terms for white and black, followed by red. Other colors receive their names in the subsequent stages. This continues until the final level, where purple, orange and pink receive designations.

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