Developing a Vocabulary of Color It turns out that early humans probably had words for just two colors. Even today, most languages don't have different words for green and blue. But the vocabulary of color has evolved.
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Developing a Vocabulary of Color

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Developing a Vocabulary of Color

Developing a Vocabulary of Color

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Leafy greens, watery blues and so-called ethnic red are the hot colors this year. That's the word from the Color Marketing Group, which every year forecasts the colors that are likely to be popular with consumers.

Not that long ago, many cultures had only a few words to describe color. This week on Science Out of the Box, we asked NPR's David Malakoff to look at the words we use for color and how they've evolved over time.

DAVID MALAKOFF: My dining room really needs a paint job, but I've got to admit, when I went to the paint store to look at colors, it was a little overwhelming.

Mr. BRENT LANDRIFF(ph) (Manager, McCormick Paint Store): Toe is in the Sand, Milkshake, Copper Moon. Peach Beach. Who comes up with these dang names? Lined With Lilac.

MALAKOFF: Brent Landriff manages the McCormick Paint Store in Alexandria, Virginia. He says he has a palette of more than 1000 shades.

Mr. LANDRIFF: We can match all of our colors and most of our competitors colors.

MALAKOFF: At the back of the store, Brent's colleagues are helping a customer. He wants to replicate a milky beige paint. It looks just like something you'd drink at Starbucks.

Mr. SAM CRANDALL(ph) (McCormick Paint Store): Well, the color's called Chai: C-H-A-I.

MALAKOFF: Sam Crandall was trying to mix up just one can of the perfect match.

Mr. CRANDALL: This is a tweener color. This is between like a reddish, a green. You know, it's a muted color and they're usually harder to do but...

MALAKOFF: He was right. He tried one tint. And then another. But it still wasn't right.

(Soundbite of paint can lid hitting the floor)

MALAKOFF: But at least Sam Crandall does have a lot of color words to help him do his job. Imagine if Sam had just two basic words to describe all the colors in his store.

Paul Kaye(ph), a linguist in Berkeley, California, says actually, that is all that some languages have.

Mr. PAUL KAYE (Linguist): One term includes black and the cool colors. Basically black, green, and blue. The other includes white and the warm colors. That's basically white, red and yellow. One of those two words to indicate the color of anything.

MALAKOFF: Kaye says most of those languages were spoken by isolated tribes. They didn't write things down and many of those tribes are now extinct.

But there are still some living languages that don't have many words for color. Researchers have been studying them since the 1970s, in part through something called the world color survey.

Basically, researchers went to some really out of the way places carrying a cardboard rectangle. On it were 320 color chips. Then the researchers asked people a question that went something like this:

Mr. KAYE: I'm going to show you a sampling of all the colors and I want you to use the smallest number of words that you can to name them.

MALAKOFF: All in all, they surveyed about 2600 people. They spoke more than 100 languages. And the researchers discovered that a lot of languages used just three or maybe four basic color words. And there are a few, like English, that have ten or more common terms to describe color.

(Soundbite of paint mixer)

MALAKOFF: Now like me, the guy at the paint store found the world color survey pretty interesting. But it wasn't help Sam Crandall whip up his chai. After half an hour, he was still tinkering.

Mr. CRANDALL: Still got to yellow that bad boy up. Come on, Sam. Come on, Sam.

MALAKOFF: It turns out that cultures have tinkered, too, with the language of color. Researchers speculate that older languages tend to lump colors together. Newer ones, they tend to split them up.

For instance, a lot of languages don't distinguish between green and blue. Researchers call them the grue languages. But over time, it appears that grue languages have evolved words to distinguish between green and blue and Paul Kaye says that kind of splintering often kept going.

Mr. KAYE: After this, usually after this, you start to name purple and brown and then pink, orange and gray.

MALAKOFF: Kaye says there's probably no single explanation for why languages evolve this way. But he thinks material wealth may play a role.

Mr. KAYE: Languages spoken by people with lots and lots and things tend to have lots and lots of words because, you know, you have to have words for all those things. Electricians couldn't function if they couldn't talk about the colors of wires, and so on.

MALAKOFF: The demands of modern life, he says, force the language of color to evolve. And make no mistake: it has evolved.

Mr. CRANDALL: Orange You Glad, Orange Nectar, Mango Tango and Fancy Nancy. And that's just one page.

MALAKOFF: And Sam Crandall's quest to make the perfect Chai...

(Soundbite of dryer)

MALAKOFF: Nearly an hour after starting, he uses some hot air to dry a dab of his latest concoction.

Mr. CRANDALL: And there we have the color, folks. Finally, but correctly. Chai, Chai, Chai.

MALAKOFF: David Malakoff, NPR News.

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