Colour Language 1:
Typology, Psycholinguistics,
Mike Dowman
Language and Cognition
3 October, 2005
Colour Week
Empirical results:
• typology
• neurophysiology
• psycholinguistics
• explanations and theories
• computer models
• discussion
Colour and Colour Words
• Colour is a continuous three dimensional space
• Colour words denote regions of colour
• Is colour naming completely arbitrary?
Colour Term Typology
There are clear typological patterns in how
languages name colour.
 neurophysiology of vision system
 or cultural/environmental explanation?
• Constraints on learnable languages
• or a cultural evolutionary process?
Basic Colour Terms
Most studies look at a subset of all colour
• Terms must be psychologically salient
• Known by all speakers
• Meanings are not predictable from the
meanings of their parts
• Don’t name a subset of colours named by
another term
Number of Basic Terms
English has red, orange, yellow, green, blue,
purple, pink, brown, grey, black and white.
crimson, blonde, taupe are not basic.
All languages have 2 to 11 basic terms
• Except Russian and Hungarian
• Some people dispute concept of basic
colour term
The Munsell Array
At left is grey scale (including black and white)
The rest of the array contains highly saturated
Colour terms have good and marginal
examples  prototype categories
• People disagree about the boundaries of
colour word denotations
• But agree on the best examples – the
Berlin and Kay (1969) found that this was
true both within and across languages.
English and Berinmo Colour Mappings
Berlin and Kay (1969)
Small set of possible colour term systems
Berlin and Kay’s Implicational Hierarchy.
98 Languages in study
Only Cantonese, Vietnamese, Western Apache,
Hopi, Samal and Papago didn’t fit the hierarchy
World Colour Survey
110 minor languages (Kay, Berlin, Merrifield,
1991; Kay et al 1997; Kay and Maffi, 1999)
• All surveyed using Munsell arrays
Black, white, red, yellow, green and blue
seem to be fundamental colours
• They are more predictable than derived
terms (orange, purple, pink, brown and
Evolutionary Trajectories
white-red-yellow +
white + red-yellow +
white + red-yellow +
black + green-blue
white + red + yellow +
black + green-blue
white + red + yellow + black +
green + blue
white + red + yellow +
white + red + yellow + green +
white + red +
yellow-green-blue + black
white + red + yellow-green + blue +
Derived Terms
• Brown and purple terms often occur
together with green-blue composites
• Orange and pink terms don’t usually occur
unless green and blue are separate
• But sometimes orange occurs without
• Grey is unpredictable
• No attested turquoise or lime basic terms
Exceptions and Problems
• 83% of languages on main line of trajectory
• 25 languages were in transition between stages
• 6 languages didn’t fit trajectories at all
 Kuku-Yalanji (Australia) has no consistent term
for green
 Waorani (Ecuador) has a yellow-white term that
does not include red
 Gunu (Cameroon) contains a black-green-blue
composite and a separate blue term
Criticism of Kay
• Much more variability than Kay suggests – both
within and across languages
• Criteria for distinguishing basic colour terms
don’t work
• Colour is often conflated with other properties:
texture, variegation, etc.
• Colour words can only be understood in relation
to the rest of the language
• Colour words have religious and cultural
 Saunders (1992), MacLaury (1997a), Levinson
(2001), MacKeigan (2005)
Colour Term Prototypes
Frequency Distribution of 10,644 WCS
Colour-term Foci (MacLaury, 1997b)
Opponency of red-green and blue-yellow
• Unique red and unique green lights of
equal strength cancel each other out.
A neutral grey colour is perceived.
• After staring at a red surface, a green
afterimage will be seen
Similar effects are observed for yellow and
De Valois et al (1966):
• There are cells in the lateral geniculate
nucleus (LGN) that respond to either red,
yellow, green, blue, black or white, and
which are inhibited by the opposite colour.
• The outputs of these cells corresponds to
the unique hues – and explains the
opponency of red-green and yellow-blue
Problems with the
Psychophysiological Explanation
• The cells which oppose red-green/yellowblue (P-cells) also respond to achromatic
• None of the red-green P-cells show a
response to short wavelength (violet) light
• The null point of red-green P-cells is at
green-yellow – not unique yellow
• Shown a selection of colour chips,
American children more often picked out
prototype colours than non prototype ones
(Heider, 1971).
• Given a colour chip and asked to point out
the matching chip in a Munsell array,
children were more often able to point out
the correct chip for prototype colours
(Heider, 1971).
Experiments with Dugum Dani
• Speaker shown colour chip
• 30 seconds later asked to pick it out from
a Munsell array.
The correct colour was picked out more
often for prototype than non-prototype
colours (Heider, 1972).
Learning Colour Categories
Dani speakers were taught colour categories
made up of 5 adjacent chips.
• Categories with central prototype easiest
to learn.
• Those with a peripheral prototype
presented a medium level of difficulty.
• Those with no prototype were hardest
(Rosch (a.k.a. Heider), 1973).
Recent Replications – Roberson et
al (2000)
Experiments with British English and
Berinmo speakers.
• Easier to remember colour if language has
a word for it.
• Berinmo speakers tended to pick
prototype colours from the Munsell array,
even when not shown a prototype.
Gives an impression that prototype
colours are better remembered.
Are results a property of the
Munsell array?
The prototype colours seem to be
perceptually farther from their neighbours
than other colours.
Therefore it’s easier to discriminate them
from other colours.
When this effect is compensated for, some
speakers show no advantage for focal
colours (Lucy, 1992).
Learning Labels for Colours
Learning labels for individual colours avoids the
problems associated with Munsell arrays.
• Berinmo speakers were taught to associate
colour chips with pictures of nuts.
• An advantage was only found for the red
Is this because Berinmo has a prominent red
colour category?
Colour Term Acquisition
• All children acquire colour naming late
relative to other words of similar
• Children have great difficult in learning
their first colour word.
Because colour is an abstract property?
Because colours denote arbitrary parts of
the colour space?
• Clear typological patterns.
• But also some exceptional languages.
• Neurophysiology suggests a special status
for red, yellow, green and blue.
• But neurophysiological results don’t
correspond exactly to unique hues.
• Psycholinguistic results provide some
support for special status of unique hues.
• But many early results are now disputed.
Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969). Basic Color Terms. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
De Valois R, Abramov I, Jacobs GH (1966) Analysis of response
patterns of LGN cells. Journal of the Optical Society of America
Heider, E. R. (1971). “Focal” Color Areas and the Development of Color
Names. Developmental Psychology, 4(3):447-445.
Heider, E . R. (1972). Universals of Color Naming and Memory. Journal
of Experimental Psychology, 93:10-20.
Kay, P., Berlin, B., Maffi, L. & Merrifield, W. (1997). Color Naming
Across Languages. In C. L. Hardin & L. Maffi (eds.) Color
Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Kay, P., Berlin B., and Merrifield, W. R. (1991). Biocultural implications
of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 1:
Kay, P. & Maffi, L. (1999). Color Appearance and the Emergence and
Evolution of Basic Color Lexicons. American Anthropologist, 101:
Levinson, S. C. (2001). Yélî Dnye and the Theory of Basic Color Terms.
Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 10(1):3-55.
Lucy, J. A. (1992). Language Diversity and Thought A Reformulation of
the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
MacLaury, R. E. (1997a). Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica:
Construing Categories as Vantages. Austin, Texas: University of
Texas Press.
MacLaury, R. E. (1997b). Ethnographic evidence of unique hues and
elemental colors. Commentary on Saunders and van Brakel (1997).
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 20(2):202-203.
Roberson, D., Davies, I. & Davidoff, J. (2000). Color Categories are Not
Universal: Replications and New Evidence from a Stone-Age
Culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129(3): 369398.
Rosch, E. H. (1973). Natural Categories. Cognitive Psychology, 4: 328350.
Saunders, B. A. C. (1992). The Invention of Basic Color Terms. Utrecht: