Why the sky and the sea are “blue” and the grass is “green”?

As you would expect, different languages have different words for colors. But what interests researches isn’t those simple translations, it’s the question: which colors get names at all?

Because as much as we think of colors in categories, the truth is that the color is a spectrum. It’s not obvious why we should have a basic color term for some of the colors and for some of them we shouldn’t.

Until the 1960s it was widely believed by anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly.

But in 1969, two Berkeley researches, Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book challenging that assumption.

They had asked 20 people who spoke different languages to look at 360 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic color term. 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, the others like brown, purple, pink, orange and gray. This 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 text, and when there were, Homer would use the same word for “colors which, according to us, are essentially different.” He use 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 researches took this and other ancient writings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind. Later in the 19th century, an anthropologies 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. 

For one thing, critics pointed out that the study used a small sample size – 20 people, all whom were bilingual English speakers, not monolingual native speakers.

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 2600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from non industrialized societies. They found that with some tweaks, the color hierarchy still checked out. Eight-three percent of the languages fit in the hierarchy. And when they averaged the center point 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. 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 dirt. Blue on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing.

Recently cognitive science researches 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, the question is what was 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.

This suggests that the naming of colors around the world is due to the basic function of our eyes, where wavelengths of colors that are more easily noticeable also get names much earlier in the evolution of a culture.

But the question that is often posed in the philosophy of this view is: do we all see the world in the same way?

Please feel free to write your points of view in the section below. 

Till the next time, squareONE.