Color Names in Different Languages

To someone unfamiliar with more than one language or the nuances of translation, it’s easy to imagine that all other languages have equivalent words for all of the ones we know and use. However, when translating from one language to another, it is very possible to not find a direct match for a word in your source language. As shown in this video, this certainly applies to color words.

One clear example is that English uses a set of basic color categories with 11 different words (yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, red, orange, brown, black, gray, and white) whereas Wobé from Côte d’Ivoire, only has three (black or dark, white or light, and red). So if you’re talking about something in English and listing the colors brown, purple, and gray, they would all fall under the word “Kpe” in Wobé, which means “dark”. While this can become tricky for a translator and is different for each language pair and context of the text, some careful consideration and experience should lead them to the best choice for how to handle these situations.

The video goes on to explore some of the history and reasons for why languages have different color categories and how they are chosen. Some of the points they make are:

1) Humans have broken colors into categories when really colors exist on a spectrum. Why did we choose the color we know as green to hold a spot as a basic category and not one like yellow-green?

2) A universal pattern studied and reported by researchers Paul Kay and Brent Berlin in 1969 showed that if a language uses…

– 6 basic color categories (ex: Mandarin in China), they are most likely:

– dark (or black), light (or white), yellow, green, blue, and red

– 4 basic color categories (ex: Ibibo in Nigeria), they are most likely:

– dark (or black), light (or white), red, and yellow or green

– 3 basic color categories (ex: Pomo, a native Californian language), they are most likely:

– dark (or black), light (or white), red
3) A later study by Kay and Berlin (World Color Survey) done on 110 unwritten languages showed that 83% of those languages developed color categories in the following order:

– Black and white (or dark and light); red; green/yellow; blue; brown; purple/orange/grey/pink

The theory for this is that they correspond to what is most frequently found in the natural world. For instance, a distinction between dark and light would be established first; red is a more distinct color than others; and blue is not found as frequently in the natural world as it is now post-manufacturing.
4) A few unique cases of how languages approach color are:

– The Yele language of Papau New Guinea. They have 3 basic color categories (black, white, red) but also use words of common objects as color comparisons. The words for things like “sky”, “ashes”, and “tree sap” provide similar meanings to the additional color categories we would use in English.

– The Hanunó’o language of the Philippines uses 4 basic words to describe color but also physical feeling. These words are used on a spectrum and are based on dark/light, wet/dry, and strong/weak.

In the case of colors, asking the question “How do you say …. in Hanunó’o?” could be a difficult one to answer.

To understand the world and each other better, it’s important to remember that different languages do not match up directly word-for-word. The human experience is similar for us all in many regards, but the way we develop language to explain and describe it is unique.

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