Further Learning: A History of Language – Part VI – “Colors”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education after school and post about what I’m learning. Right now, I’m learning about language! To start from the beginning with A History of Language – Part I, click here.

Since I’ve mostly moved on from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, I’ve been reading from his other book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and from the new-to-me podcast, my current favorite, Lingthusiasm! Information in this post will primarily be from these sources, unless otherwise stated. Also Wikipedia. I’m human, okay?

And, as always, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information or correction!

Colors

Today we’re talking about color names!!!

I’ve always loved colors and their names. I’m sure you could find an old notebook of mine when I was a kid with colors in some kind of categorization. I remember, while in the 5th or 6th grade, I would go to my sister’s basketball games, and because ugh, sports, I would spend my time charting how many of each color Skittles came in the packet I’d buy at the concession stand — you know, instead of watching the game. I had pages and pages of this information from at least two years of games. I did that for no reason other than my own curiosity. (If I remember correctly, the tropical flavored Skittles had more pinks in each packet than any other color. You’re welcome for that incredibly useless fact.)

Anyway, I also went into graphic design and I’ve always been interested in art. One of my favorite classes in design school was color theory. So, color has always just been a part of my life. But color names are what’s really interesting to me. And I’ve recently learned some incredible things that I want to share about color!

Basic Color Terms

English has eleven basic color terms. Black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. We have a large range of basic color names. Other languages have a varied number of color terms, some less and a few have more.

From the work of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, they proposed that different cultures’ languages have different amounts of color terms. All cultures have at least “black” and “white,” a set ranging from dark/cool to light/warm, but if they were to have a third, it’s pretty much always red. The rest follow in stages like this:

Stage I: black & white
Stage II: red
Stage III: yellow or green
Stage IV: yellow and green
Stage V: blue
Stage VI: brown
Stage VII: purple, pink, orange, or gray

The more complex a language is, the more main color terms they have. And, it is specifically in this order. So a language might have words for the colors black, white, yellow, green, and blue but not specific names for brown, purple, pink, orange, or gray. This language would be in Stage V.

Many other languages are Stage VII along with English, including the Romance languages, Arabic, Chinese, and the Iroquoian language spoken by Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, and many others. A few languages go one step further and have twelve color terms, like Italian, Hebrew, and Russian, that distinguishes between light blue (azure) and blue. English doesn’t do the same with blue, but we do that with red and pink—which is technically just light red. I also read in an article by Chelsea Wald, that Korean, interestingly, separates yellow-green (yeondu) and green (chorok) in two different terms, unlike other languages.

There are languages like the Yele language spoken in Papa New Guinea that only has basic color terms for black , white, and red—this language is in Stage II. Languages that don’t have as many main color terms may still have words to describe the other colors, but they are words meaning other objects that they use to describe that color. Like, in Yele, they have a word to describe an orange color, the word for “tree sap,” as they do for yellow and green, the words meaning “ripe banana” and “unripe banana.” Vox did an interesting, and visually beautiful, video about all of this here:

Interestingly, I’d watched that video a few years ago when it first came out and forgot entirely about it. I relearned about the Berlin-Kay stages during an episode of Lingthusiasm I recently listened to. I don’t know why I forgot about it, but both times I was equally interested.

Blue/Green

Many languages don’t separate blue and green into separate words. This if often referred to as “grue.” To those language speakers, blue and green are just different tones of the same color. This, I could understand, especially after reading in that same article by Wald, that a Brazilian language called Karajá has four basic color terms (which would put them at Stage III) but lumps yellow, blue, and green all as one color. At first, I was shocked…and then I realized that if we looked at those colors as related, the link between yellow and blue being green, and that many languages look at warm/cool first, it makes complete sense. Yellow is just a warm green and blue is just a cool green. There just isn’t a word for those different greens in that language, just like we don’t have a basic word for light blue but we have one for light red (pink).

Because the stages work in the way that they do, speakers of languages that don’t make a distinction between blue and green, won’t move on to having words for brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray until they do. It would be easy, without the separation of blue and green, to see that pink is just light red, orange is just a shade of red or yellow, brown is just a darker shade of the same, purple could go either way into red or blue depending on the shade, and gray is just a light or dark color.

A while ago, before I was even interested in this, there was a long article I read about how this blue/green distinction caused speakers of those languages without a distinct blue to not notice blue. Basically, it said that if there wasn’t a word for blue in the language, those people couldn’t see blue. This is hotly debated as being false with many explanations to the “evidence” of this. You can read up about this topic here.

So what is my favorite color, you ask? Hilariously…it’s grue. I mean, blue/green. Often known as teal or turquoise, sometimes other names depending on the shade. Specifically, I like the shades “peacock blue” and “mint.” I used to only like blue, but the greener side has been growing on me and now I just like blue-green shades.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • Orange is named after the fruit, as orange is a less common color in nature — or at least for a singular item. Carrots came in many colors before orange carrots were the main carrot, so the citrus fruit became the official color’s name. Probably, I assume, as people used it to explain the type of orange they were describing, it became the color’s name. Like, if someone said, “That’s a beautiful shirt, it’s a beautiful color — like salmon.” Now we have salmon the color and salmon the fish.
  • And speaking of orange, I learned on my new favorite podcast Lingthusiasm (there episode about color, which is where I was inspired for this post and got much information for it) that the term “redhead” uses red instead of orange, which is much closer to the color redhead actually are, because red was the closest color to describe red hair at the time — this was pre-orange.
  • I already mentioned orange, but also pink comes from an object, a flower family called “pinks.” Black’s etymology comes from a word meaning “burnt” and white comes from a word meaning “bright.” Green’s etymology has the same root as the words “grow and “grass.”

All the colors of the rainbow…

I talked a lot about color names and I literally barely scratched the surface. I could go in-depth about English’s color words alone. That’s all for now!

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