Saturday, June 16, 2012

Language: How we gave colours names, and it messed with our brains

Imagine that you had a rainbow-coloured piece of paper that smoothly blends from one colour to the other. This will be our map of colour space.

Now just as you would on a real map, we draw boundaries on it. This bit here is pink, that part is orange, and that’s yellow.

Here is what such a map might look like to a native English speaker.

If you think about it, there’s a real puzzle here.  

Why should different cultures draw the same boundaries?

If we speak different languages with largely independent histories, shouldn’t our ancestors have carved up the visual atlas rather differently?

This question was first addressed by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in the late 1960s.  

They wanted to know if there are universal, guiding laws that govern how cultures arrive at their colour atlas.

Here’s what they found. Languages have differing numbers of colour words, ranging from two to about eleven. Yet after looking at 98 different languages, they saw a pattern.

It was a pretty radical idea, that there is a certain fixed order in which these colour names arise. This was a common path that languages seem to follow, a road towards increasing visual diversity and they suggested that the road looked like this:

The figure above is really telling a story. What it says is this. If a language has just two colour terms, they will be a light and a dark shade – blacks and whites.

Add a third colour, and it’s going to be red. Add another, and it will be either green or yellow – you need five colors to have both and when you get to six colours, the green splits into two, and you now have a blue.

What we’re seeing here is a deeply trodden road that most languages seem to follow, towards greater visual discernment (92 of their 98 languages seemed to follow this basic route).

Critics of Kay and Berlin said they were reading too much from too little. Some argued that their study was too small, that they surveyed too few people from each language.

They also said that study was skewed, as most the languages were from industrialized societies with written scripts. And to top it off, their methods weren’t very quantitative.

To respond to these criticisms, the authors launched what they called the World Colour Survey, a project that started collecting data in the late 1970s. This was a survey of 110 languages, all spoken by pre-industrial societies, many that have no written script.

Read more of this article here: Empirical Zeal

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