Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Color Words

One of my other interests is languages and linguistics, and I find it interesting how speakers of different languages divide colors in different ways.

Could you describe the room you're in using only two color words? Very primitive languages have only two and they are for black and white, or more accurately, for dark and bright. If a language has only three color words, the third is for red. This is likely because red is associated with blood, and therefore with life and death. It's a very primal color.

It seems that color terms are added to a language in a fixed order as the language evolves. After dark, light, and red, green and/or yellow (first one, then the other) are added, followed by blue. All languages with six distinct colors contain terms for the same six colors: black, white, red, green, yellow and blue. As languages develop, they add a term for brown, followed by orange, pink, and purple and/or gray, in no particular order. Finally, a term for light blue appears. (We English speakers lag behind!)

I tend to assume that everyone else thinks the same way I do, but not all languages have words for colors that are equivalent to English words. Languages sometimes give hues different names based on how light or dark they are. 

For example, English splits red and pink, and orange and brown. To English speakers, these pairs of colors - which are really no more different from one another than light green and dark green - belong to different categories. Apparently Irish does separate light green and dark green. A Russian-speaker makes the same red-pink and orange-brown distinctions we do, and will further distinguish between dark blue and light blue.


  1. That is fascinating! I would love to hear more.

    When I was in collage, I did study Old English, and I loved it. But how insightful of you to notice the correlation of languages and color!


  2. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I had never thought of this- thanks for sharing! I really enjoy your blog!:)