The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

The surprising pattern behind color names around the world


If I showed you this paint chip and asked
you to tell me what color it is, what would you say? How about this one? And this one? You probably said blue, purple, and brown
— but if your native language is Wobé from Côte d’Ivoire, you probably would have
used one word for all three. That’s because not all languages have the
same number of basic color categories. In English, we have 11. Russian has 12, but some languages, like Wobé,
only have 3. And researchers have found that if a language
only has 3 or 4 basic colors, they can usually predict what those will be. So how do they do it? As you would expect, different languages have
different words for colors. But what interests researchers isn’t those
simple translations, it’s the question of which colors get names at all. Because as much as we think of colors in categories,
the truth is that color is a spectrum. It’s not obvious why we should have a basic
color term for this color, but not this one. And until the 1960s it was widely believed
by anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly. But In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul
Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book challenging that assumption. They had asked 20 people who spoke different
languages to look at these 330 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic
color term. And 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, then others like brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. The theory was revolutionary. [music change] 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 “colours
which, according to us, are essentially different.” He used 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 researchers took this and other ancient
writings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind. Later in the 19th century, an anthropologist
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. “An expedition to investigate the cultures on a remote group of islands in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. His brief was to investigate the mental characteristics of the islanders. He claimed that the number of color terms
in a population was related to their “intellectual and cultural development”. And used his findings to claim that Papuans
were less physically evolved than Europeans. Berlin and Kay didn’t make those racist
claims, but their color hierarchy attracted a lot of criticism. For one thing, critics pointed out that the
study used a small sample size — 20 people, all of whom were bilingual English speakers,
not monolingual native speakers. And almost all the languages were from industrialized
societies — hardly the best portrait of the entire world. But it also had to do with defining what a
“basic color term” is. In the Yele language in Papua New Guinea,
for example, there are only basic color terms for black, white, and red. But there’s a broad vocabulary of everyday
objects — like the sky, ashes, and tree sap — that are used as color comparisons
that cover almost all English color words. There are also languages like Hanunó’o
from the Phillippines, where a word can communicate both color and physical feeling. They have four basic terms to describe color
— but they’re on a spectrum of light vs. dark, strength vs. weakness, and wetness vs.
dryness. Those kinds of languages don’t fit neatly
into a color chip identification test. But 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
2,600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies. They found that with some tweaks, the color
hierarchy still checked out. Eighty-three percent of the languages fit
into the hierarchy. And when they averaged the centerpoint 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, which are labeled here. Here’s how Paul Kay puts it:
“It just turns out that most languages make cuts in the same place. Some languages make fewer cuts than others.” 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 in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing. Recently cognitive science researchers 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. And 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. So what does all this mean? Why does it matter? Well, it tells us that despite our many differences
across cultures and societies … there is something universal about how humans try to
make sense of the world.

100 Comments

  • ansbanans s says:

    The colour "orange" in Brazilian Portuguese is just Orange (Laranja) but in Portugal Portuguese is Colour of Orange/Orange Colour (Cor de Laranja)…. which is very weird thinking about it in terms of how they differ in the same language.

  • Maïa says:

    Me, a drawer : oh that's a dark greenish blue, a dark purple indigo and a muddy brown

  • Sharon Kim says:

    Amazing video !!!!

  • Ian Kim says:

    imagine trying to put captions for this lol

  • kingtamale says:

    i mean the visible light spectrum is so vast, and nature is only so colorful so ?? i’m sure the common colors we all name are global phenomena !

  • A Literal Ape says:

    My middle name is blue
    Wait how did you know my mom was a hippie

  • Jae x says:

    are we gonna ignore that oranges are orange or…?

  • Walt Zamalis says:

    Why does Vox call itself progressive but leaves New Zealand and the pacific islands off a map

  • Zsolt Balint says:

    6:16 🇭🇺 piros =red Magyar=Hungarian 😄

  • Kate Alexandra says:

    But my favorite color is purple😬

  • nazilla hasan says:

    Belum aja ketemu orang indo yg deskripsiin warna pake “abu abu monyet” “ijo muntah kucing” “kuning tai”

  • Graham ツ says:

    This is why I love language so much! Learning another language gives you a different insight into life elsewhere!

  • nicole bhuwacool says:

    Im a Filipino but I didnt know about Hanuno'o omg

  • Mad Geo says:

    I wonder why people couldn't come up with a proper name for ORANGE
    You know? Instead of giving it the name of something else.
    Wonder if I'm talking about the color or the fruit?
    Well, the answer is…

    …yes.

  • shavturtle says:

    Vox: Blue was pretty scarce

    Me: looks up at the sky🤔

  • candela says:

    as a non native english speaker it drives me mad how there are very few words to distinguish colours compared to spanish were different shades have different names, for example there are more than six specific ways to distinguish the shades of purple (in common language of course)

  • Snow Cone says:

    5:24 Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce until manufacturing.

    Rivers, Lakes, Oceans, and the Sky: Are we a joke to you?

  • akirafaris says:

    In Bahasa (Indonesian) we call the color brown as "coklat", which is the color of & refers to a "chocolate."
    e.g.:
    Q: Kamu makan apa? (What're you eating?)
    A: Coklat (A chocolate)
    Q: Apa warnanya? (What color is it?)
    A: Coklat (Brown)

  • Sofia Ortega says:

    I genuinely love this comments, it"s nice to see how people perceive colours and how other bilingual people adapt a color that "doesn't"t exist" that does in their language.

  • Elena Heinrich says:

    Anyone else notice the correlation with rods/cones? Black/white are first, then RGB (where yellow is the middle ground between green and red wrt wavelengths or whatever)

  • The_bomb_dot_com says:

    Blue is literally the sky and the see, how could it be scarce?

  • Gopinath Bhat says:

    sanskrit has described a lot of colours.

  • spiider wOoOo says:

    synesthesia

  • Faith Mwaura says:

    I read the title as them talking about people being NAMED color-themed names, not the names of colors themselves. I was confused and a little disappointed, but this was still way more interesting than I would have assumed if I had properly understood the question.

  • TuneLola says:

    Of course the most important colours to humans are night, day, and berry.

  • Nate The Gaming beast says:

    These people need to read the Crayola crayon names

  • mi says:

    i wanted to say dark brown and ended up saying “brak”

  • Siera Queen says:

    We call brown chocolate (Coklat / Cokelat) 🙃

  • Misha Sharma says:

    People during industrial times: There are only three colors- Black, White and Red
    Blue: *Am I a joke to you? *

  • Abeer Kashar says:

    am i the only person who thought this video was gonna be about people naming their kids "blue" and "violet"

  • Lucas Bevins says:

    Primary colors to artists: Red, yellow, blue
    Primary colors to programmers: Red, green, blue
    Primary colors to graphic designers: Magenta, yellow, cyan

  • TheIcecoldorange says:

    "blue was scarce". no it wasn't because the sky is blue

  • Hotman Pasaribu says:

    Walrus: "What is color?"

  • Eabbyanna says:

    highkey want more videos on this kind of thing

  • Elise Putnam says:

    There's a good Radiolab episode on this called Color. It has a lot of other interesting things about color in it as well.

  • Etienne Namasu says:

    In Portuguese (at least where I'm from in Brazil) we use the words "violeta" or "lilás" (lilac) for light purple, so that's a basic color for me.

  • Smoked says:

    How can you see green and purple and name them the same? That's just not right, I don't know what these countries are thinking?

  • genericamerican says:

    Maybe red is the first color other than black and white because a lot of fruit/ vegetables are red/ have red in them when ripe?

  • Sasha's says:

    Indonesian are just well kinda same like the American like
    Red = merah
    Blue = biru
    Orange = jingga
    Yellow = kuning
    Green = hijau
    Purple = ungu
    Black = hitam
    White = putih
    There's one more that is nila but dunno the English word v:

  • Fabrice David says:

    Content like this is why the internet is great!

  • ꦠꦺꦴꦫꦶ ꦏꦿꦶꦱ꧀ꦠꦭꦺꦲ says:

    Gosh, it's so interesting when languages name colors after objects. English's orange is named after the fruit. Indonesian's kelabu or abu-abu (gray) is named after ash, similar to how Japanese calls it 灰色 (haiiro)

    Maybe all colors at some point are named this way, dunno if this is true or not

  • spam account says:

    5:23 Serious question here, then wouldn't green be one of the first colors, since it is in so many plants. Also, blue is in the sky and sea, and red isn't that much of anywhere, so I think that green or blue would come first, then red. Lastly, does anybody who speaks Russian know what the last color is that you guys have that we don't? What color is it like, e.g. dark red, indigo, violet, etc. Thanks!

  • azmi nur says:

    Itam, puteh, mirah, kuneng, ijo. There is only five colour in my language.

  • Susaaa Lolila says:

    So, what is grey? Black or white

  • Aimar Aziz says:

    We say Brown = Chocolate in Bahasa.

  • Laura Cardoso says:

    Dividing colors between "light", "dark" and "red" seemed weird only until I realized that's exactly how I divide laundry.

  • 白い戦士 says:

    Everything's racist to Vox lol. Oh how far you've fallen :/

  • Sky 201 says:

    0:35 there's something to do with france

  • Julia Petrova says:

    There's a very interesting chapter about this very thing in Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct"

  • Carlos Entrena says:

    Did you geniuses just mark all Spain for Catalan and places Spanish in Mexico???

  • Dena F says:

    I love the development of research. Someone looks at a small sample and makes a global statement about a topic that the everyday person never had time to consider. People agree it makes sense. Then another scientist/group challenges it, and people agree with that negative assertion. Then a third group challenges the other two by looking globally. Then people disagree with all three, question why we are paying taxes for this silly research, and say none of the scientists know what they are talking about. Works every time, every type of science.

  • lidette711 says:

    Whoa, I'm Filipino, and I didn't know about the Hanunu'o color perceptions.

  • Vlodec says:

    This isn't really true. English may have only 11 official/scientific colours, but in reality there are many more: Cerise, cerulean, citron (the yellow-green that was mentioned as having no name), plum etc. all referring to very specific shades. What Isaac Newton's manservant didn't give us, we created for ourselves.

  • MONKEYofDOUBT says:

    3:56 they use the word for "tree sap" to describe orange, a colour we named after a fruit…

  • theshriekinghominin says:

    That's interesting and all. Now, imagine a new color.

  • Sarah Wilks says:

    To build on this, there was an article in New Scientist that explains how language and culture affects the colours we are able to see.

    For instance some languages have no word for green, others have many names for different shades of green.
    When tested, the participants were able to identify differences in shade that seemed directly linked to the language they used around colour.

  • Grape says:

    Think about it, there's no proof that all of us see the same colours.

    Sleep well tonight.

  • pansy says:

    if youve managed to include the works of anthropologists then perhaps do a prior research on why not to mention the word tribe

  • lepidoptery says:

    who decided a rainbow spectrum was roygbiv? was it a russian, because they distinguish blue into 2 colors, and the rainbow has both blue and indigo?

    <consults wiki>

    "In line with this artistic tradition, Newton divided his color circle, which he constructed to explain additive color mixing, into seven colors.[1] His color sequence including the tertiary color indigo is kept alive today by the Roy G. Biv mnemonic. Originally he used only five colors, but later he added orange and indigo to match the number of musical notes in the major scale"

    (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

  • MilleniumExodus says:

    The most confusing video I've ever watched!

  • Artemis Yiannioti says:

    κυανός is used to describe blue

  • _Urban_ _Lupus_ says:

    I have noticed something… my native language hindi( हिन्दी) can be used to write any english sentence completely with the same pronunciation for example…

    English(language and pronunciation): "Hi… I love Vox's videos"

    Hindi(भाषा और उच्चारण)
    "हाय… आई लव वॉक्सस व्हिडियोस"

    the language is hindi but the pronunciation is English… I mean it's really interesting and it's also vice versa

    (language is hindi and pronunciation is also in hindi) जैसे… मैं वॉक्स की वीडियोस को पसंद करता हूँ

    (jaise… main vox ki videos ko pasand karta hun)

    (like… I love vox's videos)

    I think English and Hindi are complete languages in terms of pronunciation… I mean they're are completely unrelated and no common ancestry yet they are as they are…

    I just wanted to share…
    thanks for reading…

  • Lach Krampf says:

    I don't know why … But this was mind-blowing!

  • IKEGRKCHROME says:

    1:59 when that fly that has been annoying you all day finally positions itself perfectly for you to murck it.

  • Dave Brimmer says:

    this tells me nothing about Pantone…

  • ssbbSephi says:

    in russian, all colors must end with Y

  • Trang LÊ says:

    Lowkey happy cause Vietnamese language appears in the video

  • Peaceful Exaulter says:

    I'm colorblind, YouTube's evil…

  • Coolwoobyër says:

    0:35 Only the colours of wash matter.

  • Humorflix YPTH y mas says:

    Miranda Presley know the names of the whole color spectrum

  • terenola seka says:

    What was named first, orange the fruit or orange the color?

  • Apoorva S says:

    In Hindi we don't have a proper word for pink, purple, and grey, pink is called 'Gulabi', which means rose coloured and purple is called 'baingani' which means Brinjal(or eggplant) coloured, grey is called 'dhoosar', which means the colour of dust.

  • Dmitri Lessy says:

    I saw Indonesian language there written as Bahasa. Well, bahasa means language in Indonesian. The language that Indonesians speak is called Indonesian Language (Bahasa Indonesia) so "bahasa" is not the name of the language itself.

    This is a painful mistake many foreigners make and even more Indonesians love to entertain.

    English language = bahasa Inggris.
    Tagalog language = bahasa Tagalog.
    French language = bahasa Perancis.
    Guess what the language Indonesians speak… Yes, Indonesian language = bahasa Indonesia.

    Bahasa = language.

    Hence the language of love = bahasa cinta

    Sign language = bahasa isyarat.

    Programming language = bahasa pemrograman/pemproraman.

    And so on and so forth.

    Bahasa means language in Indonesian. The language of Indonesia is Indonesian language. It is not called "bahasa". So don't come to Indonesians and ask if we speak bahasa, we will ask, what bahasa because speaking bahasa means to speak a language.

    Stop this. Just stop doing that.

    Btw. Great content.

  • DeepSpace12 says:

    2:00 was he shot on his shoulder?

  • Jevans says:

    3:20 trust vox to find racism where it is not

  • Ramieverse ! says:

    Similar to tagalog we dont have a direct translation for Pink. Instead we use the word "Kalimbahin" as a substitute Which is a kind of fruit with pinkish insides.
    we also use "Rosas/Mala-Rosas" (rose-like) for pink

  • QUAKE SHAKE says:

    wdym blue was rare? Blue is the colour of the sky

  • J T says:

    Blue was scarce? Did they fail to look up during the day?

  • RadiLime says:

    So, anyone ever wonder what the music used in these videos are?

  • ADDIE PALSETIA says:

    Plot Twist: This video is in RGB!

  • Alex Diduk says:

    Imagine trying to translate this video into one of the languages with 3 colours

  • Mirai Nico says:

    3:55 say the guys who use fruits to name colors

  • Samuel Bellenchia says:

    Vox is for people that have severe cranial damage

  • Techpriest Titus Farlier says:

    In my language green and fresh have the same word.

  • Thomas Duffy says:

    Music????

  • Emma Provencher says:

    Wow this makes me think of the controversy about the color of my car. I’ve always considered it blue but one day my parents called it green and we still argue about it now lol. I work at a summer camp so i asked the kids and the answers are so mixed between blue and green. Maybe it has to do with the lack of the in between color like “goluboy” in Russian

  • Paul Swabey says:

    This was in a Technology Connections video a week or so ago…

  • eye origins says:

    Yeah sure, we Indonesian speak Bahasa 🤦‍♀️

  • frenchiveruti says:

    'blue is fairly scarce'
    Guess the people before industrial age couldn't look up during the day.

  • Latvian Boi says:

    ▫️◻◼◽◾⬛⬜🔶️🔷️🔸️🔹️🔺️🔲🔳⚪⚫🔴🔵⚀⚁⚂⚃⚄⚅

  • Latvian Boi says:

    ⚀ Redu
    ⚀⚁ Reroģonu (Redoeran)
    ⚁ Oeranģu
    ⚁⚂ Oerooejelu (Oerojelo)
    ⚂ Jeloe
    ⚂⚃ Saigej (Grījelu)
    ⚃ Grīnu
    ⚃⚄ Brīlonu (Saijanu)
    ⚄ Blue
    ⚄⚅ Pürlue (Vaibue)
    ⚅ Pürpulu

  • AutoManic says:

    "Blue was fairly scarce before manufacturing"
    Me: Sky and water exist

  • Becca says:

    If red is a more distinct colour to humans, I guess that explains why pink and brown feel like distinct colours too, instead of just being light red and dark red.

  • Amanda Moratis says:

    Simple “only pick those berries that are red” “not the berries that are “green” “pick the pineapple when it is yellow not green”

  • Марина Ёлкина says:

    Red is in ripe fruits that is main reason for primates to focus on it, but sure, red is in dirt, that's the case.

  • Hanh Vu says:

    vietnamese peole has just the word blue "xanh" but if it's light blue we'll call it "xanh da trời" or blue of the sky and if it's dark blue we'll call it "xanh nước biển" or the blue of the sea

  • H says:

    Interesting but we have much more different worlds that can describe colour in russian language.
    For example "bordoviy" (dark red) or birch colour (biruzoviy) (something between blue and green)
    and so on

  • Lights & Cameras! says:

    In urdu we have two colors for green, “hara” which is more common and means green. “Sabz” however is a lesser common word which means the “color of vegetables”. So yeah theres that

  • Jonathan Devon says:

    But if you think about the colors… there‘s no orange. 🤔

  • John Smith says:

    Blue is fairly scarce … ah, ahem (sky, shhh).

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