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!


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.


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!


Further Learning: A History of Language – Part V – “What’s Up With English? (III)”

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.

It’s time to talk more about how weird English is again! I’ve been reading from the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and listening to the podcast Lingthusiasm. Information in this post will primarily be from these sources, unless otherwise stated. Most of this particular post is from Wikipedia, (wo)man’s best informational friend. (I realize some things on Wiki can be wrong. Take all knowledge with a grain of salt. Not just in this post, but also in life.)

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!

What’s Up With English? (III)

Did you know that English-speaking countries are really the only ones that have spelling bees? That’s how fucking dumb (and wonderful) our language is. It’s become a competition for us, knowing how to spell our own language.

That’s it. That’s the post.

…Okay, obviously not.

Today I wanted to talk about LETTERS!!! We’re going to discuss the alphabet and where our letters came from.

I briefly discussed in another post about how our numerals (1, 2, 3…etc.) came from the Arabic numerals. We didn’t have symbols for our numbers, we just used the Roman Numerals (I, II, III…etc.) that came so nicely with our letter system. Europeans adopted the Arabic numerals from Arabic-speakers in North Africa (who, in turn, had adopted these numerals as Hindu-numerals, because they’d originated in India.) I believe they were so quickly adopted, especially with the invention of the printing press, because it was a lot easier to print 1634 instead of MDCXXXIV.

So if we received our numerals from Arabic, where did our letters come from?

The First English Alphabet

Well, as I said with Roman Numerals, our letters are actually from the Latin alphabet. Which is why, if you go to Rome, the letters carved into the stone on the front of the Pantheon look so familiar, even if you don’t know Latin. But that wasn’t the first alphabet that English, as a distinct language from other Germanic languages, had.

English — or I should said, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) — was first written in a completely different alphabet. It was first written in Anglo-Saxon runes, which looked like this:

Rad, right? Not like the “r” rune called “rad” above…I mean like, rad “cool”…you get it.

Anyway, it wasn’t until Christianity came in to England, bringing the Latin alphabet along with it, that it slowly overtook. Then there was that unimportant, kind of forgettable time of the conquest of 1066, the Normans taking over with Anglo-Norman (Old French), and it disappeared all together shortly after.  We have remnants of these runes, like “wynn” which was used for the /w/ sound, which was later used with two Us (uu) in the Latin alphabet as a digraph and this is where we got “double-u” from. (A digraph is two letters together to create one sound, like (th) or (sh).

So, if we then had the Latin alphabet to write with, which was only made up of capital or majuscule letters, why do we have lower case or miniscule letters, too?

To my understanding, over time, when writing with a pen, these letters became much more round and simple. Eventually, it caught on to being normal practice as it was much easier to read words in the miniscule style. They kept important words, like nouns, with a capital, but eventually this dropped off to just proper nouns (although, in German, they still capitalize nouns) and the first letter in a sentence more recently. There’s also some debate about this, that lower-case letters might have existed alongside the original Latin alphabet with all capitals, but were never used together until later. I’m not an expert, so I literally have no idea which is true.

So…English has morphed from one set of languages, changed three times in three major ways, and even changed alphabets. No wonder it’s so difficult to spell.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • I’ve never been one of those people to harp to harshly about literally being used incorrectly. I have in the passed, but I’m above that now. It’s called growth. And knowledge. Because, guess what? Like all of our language, things change and keep changing. Literally is actually a word meant to be used specifically and only when its use is pertaining to the alphabet. That’s why it has the same root as other words like letter and literature. So unless you’re literally talking about the alphabet, literally, you’re still using it wrong. So use it wrong all you like! Nothing matters! We’re all going to die and English will sound different from what it does today. It’s fine! I promise!
  • Just like the runic letter “wynn” became the W, our fun friend “thorn”, or þ, became the (th) sound for a bit. You know what blew my mind while researching for this post? The term “ye olde” is a mistake. The y was the, now unused, letter  þ, but it looked so much like a “y” in old text that it was mistaken for one. It was the. THE olde. So your bookshop, bar, or tattoo is incorrect. I, personally, think this is hilarious.
  • So a digraph is when two letters are used to make a single sound, but a ligature is the actual mushed up letters to create a single symbol, like æ. The “and” symbol, &, the ampersand, is actually a ligature of the Latin word Et, which means and.
  • And, my favorite tweet that has kept me up at night: the alphabet is in no particular order. It’s random. But we alphabetize a lot of things in that order. But it doesn’t actually mean anything. Goodnight!

Good luck sleeping after that!

So, that’s a very, very simplified, amateur explanation of why we write with our current alphabet and where it came from.  That’s all for now!

Further Learning: A History of Language – Part II – “What’s Up With English? (I)”

Hello! Welcome to Further Learning, a little project of mine where I continue my education outside of 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.

This post will probably be one of several about English specifically. I expect I’ll be learning more, especially in the book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter and The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, as I’m fascinated with the weirdness of English, so I’m definitely going to want to know more and talk about more!

I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.

What’s Up with English? (I)

English is weird. I’m sure other languages are weird, too. But English, my native language, sometimes just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve always wanted to know why certain words are the way they are. Like, why is “bologna” pronounced bel-OWN-ee? Why is “colonel” pronounced k-ERN-al? Or should I be asking why they’re spelled that way? There are so many more things that I want to know about English and I’m on a mission to learn as much as I can about all the weird spellings, rules, and history of it.

To answer those questions, I’ve found out: Bologna is actually Italian, a sausage named after the city in Italy, pronounced boh-LOAN-ya, which probably organically changed to an Americanized, easier pronunciation of buh-LOAN-ee over time. The spelling, for the most part, remained — except for those who changed it, sounding it out to “baloney,” which is also accepted as correct. As for colonel…or coronel…it’s still confusing. Basically, it comes from both French and Italian, and over time we acquired military terms from them, with interchanging spellings and pronunciations (like the word actually being three syllables and both ‘o’s were pronounced to be “col-o-nel” and “cor-o-nel“). And both spellings were used for a while in English. Eventually, we just stuck with the French pronunciation but the Italian spelling remained as a dumb-ass compromise. The second ‘o’ pronunciation was later dropped over time and it was just a weirdly spelled, two-syllable word. You can read about it here.

A Brief History of the English Language

As I said in the last post about language, all languages around the world are connected and derived from a singular (or several similar) language. Over time, with migration and other factors, one language because thousands. An early language to many of the European/Western Asian languages is Indo-European, a language branch that split up into many other branches. One of these branches is the Germanic branch of languages.

What’s part of the Germanic branch? Well, English, German (duh), Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Scots, Frisian, Icelandic, and a few others.

English has a close relation to Frisian, but was heavily influenced by other Germanic languages, Norse, French, and Latin, which is why so many modern words are derived from so many different other languages. There’s even more than just those listed above.

Essentially, there’s four stages of English after the Germanic split from the main Indo-European language. From Proto-Germanic, one of the many languages to come from it, and is the earliest form of English as its own language, is called Old English. This early version of English was spoken in the early Middle Ages (550 – 1066 CE). This is what Beowulf was first written in. During this time, around the year 787, Vikings invaded speaking Old Norse (ancestor of Scandinavian languages) and brought early versions of the words again, get, both, same, skirt, and sky into the language.

After Old English, the language transitioned into what’s called Middle English, spoken from about 1200 – 1450 CE. This is the version of English in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. After the French won against England and took over in 1066, many words from the French invaders remained in the English language just like the Viking’s Old Norse. This is where we received thousands of words like, flower, debt, people, change, wait, chair, tax, music, and beef. And, speaking of “beef,” one of my first introductions into learning about language was from this video by Lindsey Williams, in which she explains why there’s different words for the meat of an animal versus the animals themselves (beef/cow, mutton/sheep, pork/pig) and it blew my mind.

After Middle English came Early Modern English, spoken during the time of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible, from 1500 to 1700 CE. Around this time, is when scholars, as Lindsey Williams in the second video of hers below says, just kind of put letters wherever they wanted for the hell of it. In McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, he calls this the “Latinate” layer, where they were including more Latin derived words.

And that brings us to the latest version of English, Modern English! (Or, Late Modern English? I don’t know, we speak differently than we did in the Early Modern English phase, so I’d assume it should be its own era at this point.) It’s what I’m typing in right now. It’s been spread around the world (sometimes forcibly pushed on people, which ain’t great) and has become one of the most spoken languages in the world.

Will there be another version of English, as it changes and morphs through time? I’m not sure. Again, I’m not an expert. But there’s already so many dialects of Modern English, and it’s safe to say that they’ll continue to change on their own through each generation. It’s very clear that English today is much different from the English spoken just 100 years ago.

Favorite Facts & Tidbits

  • The evolution of the alphabet is WILD. As a graphic designer who knows a bit about typography and letterform, seeing the evolution of how the shapes of our (Latin) alphabet is so cool. It’s so interesting to see the slight and large changes, to see how some letter branches off of each other, like “F” and “Y” having the same origin, and later the “V” splitting into “U” and “W”, is about the greatest thing I’ve ever learned. That’s right up my alley. That’s my jam.
Matt Baker, UsefulCharts.com 
  • And speaking of form, have you ever wondered where the shapes of our numbers came from??? Because I sure never did until I was taught in design school that the origins of our number forms (1, 2, 3, 4…etc.) came from Arabic!
  • Another fun fact I’ve learned, is that “English” words “shampoo” and “bungalow” are from the language of Hindi, one of the main languages spoken in India (also an Indo-European language). I’m sure there are others, but I think it’s interesting that so many words in English aren’t even originally our words, but they become so common, most English speakers don’t even realize it!
  • AND THIS IS MY FAVORITE FACT! I actually threw the book after reading this one. Are you ready? You’re not ready. Unless you already know. But have you ever wondered why there’s “warm” and “warmth,” and “grow” and “growth,” but there’s only “slow” and not “slowth”…well that ain’t true. It’s sloth. Because of the sound and semantic changes from “slowth,” sloth is really now only used in a moral context as one of the capital sins and, of course, the adorable animal.

That’s all for now

English is a weird language, but as it’s my native one, of course I’m fond of it. I’m real excited to learn more and will hopefully have a second part specifically about English soon, but until then, my next History of Language post will be about…DIALECTS, PIDGINS, and CREOLES! No, not the bird.

And of course, 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! So long for now!