Languages don’t all have the same number of terms for colors – scientists have a new theory why

People with standard vision can see millions of distinct colors. But human language categorizes these into a small set of words. In an industrialized culture, most people get by with 11 color words: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. That’s what we have in American English.

Maybe if you’re an artist or an interior designer, you know specific meanings for as many as 50 or 100 different words for colors – like turquoise, amber, indigo or taupe. But this is still a tiny fraction of the colors that we can distinguish.

Interestingly, the ways that languages categorize color vary widely. Nonindustrialized cultures typically have far fewer words for colors than industrialized cultures. So while English has 11 words that everyone knows, the Papua-New Guinean language Berinmo has only five, and the Bolivian Amazonian language Tsimane’ has only three words that everyone knows, corresponding to black, white and red.

The goal of our project was to understand why cultures vary so much in their color word usage.

Read more: The Conversation

By | 2017-09-19T13:23:55+00:00 September 19th, 2017|Colors, Languages|1 Comment

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  1. Robert Withers September 22, 2017 at 4:48 am - Reply

    Lingthusiasm did a podcast on this. There is no arena of human experience (maybe?) in which language is more inadequate than the naming of colors. Our best names in English are based on natural substances. Why not? Are we Pantone?

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