“Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution” by Berlin and Kay
This landmark book written in 1969 defined modern understanding of how language is used to describe and label color.
The book “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution,” by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay approaches the subject of a common evolutionary development of color categories in different languages.
Harold Conklin’s 1955 study on the color words of the Hanunoo tribe of Mindoro in the Philippines served as a stimulus for the Berlin and Kay book written in 1969 and published by the University of California Press.
The Berlin and Kay proposal does not relate to ideas of common inheritance of color words in different languages that could link to such suggested linguistic groupings as Proto-World and the Nostratic family. Instead, the authors suggest that common color categories arise out of a similar evolutionary process in developing color words in unrelated languages.
Two basic views
The book starts by outlining the two basic schools of thought regarding color words in different languages. One viewpoint sees languages as coding color experience in independent and unique manners. Therefore, there would be no expectation of any universal semantics of color terms with this type of thinking.
In America, scholars associate this framework with Edward Sapir and B.L. Whorf.
Berlin and Kay, however, using their experience with three unrelated language families came to a different hypothesis. They found that the color words found in these unrelated languages had too great a semantic similarity to allow for coincidence.
Instead, they suggest that there are exactly eleven basic color categories from which all basic color terms in all languages arise. These eleven basic colors are black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, orange and grey.
Rules for languages with fewer color terms
Berlin and Kay also found in their research that languages with fewer than the eleven basic color categories all followed a set of “restrictions” regardless of the language family.
• The languages all have words for “black” and “white”
• For languages with just three terms, the third term is always “red.”
• For languages with just four terms, the fourth term is either “yellow” or “green”
• For languages with five terms, there are terms for both “yellow” and “green”
• For languages with six terms, the sixth term is “blue”
• For languages that contain seven terms, the seventh term is “brown”
• For languages that contain eight or more terms, there are terms for purple, pink, orange, grey or a combination of these colors.
How they carried out their study
Berlin and Kay used a standardized procedure developed by Munsell Color Company for their color term research. The Munsell test consisted of 329-color chip set mounted on a board. The researchers used the color chip set to question informants about color terms in their language.
Native speakers came from a diverse set of languages to decrease the possibility of borrowed color terminology. The languages used were:
• Lebanese Arabic
• Bulgarian (Bulgaria)
• Catalan (Spain)
• Cantonese (China)
• American English
• Hebrew (Israel)
• Hungarian (Hungary)
• Ibibio (Nigeria)
• Indonesian (Indonesia)
• Japanese (Japan)
• Korean (Korea)
• Mandarin (China)
• Pomo (California)
• Spanish (Mexico)
• Swahili (East Africa)
• Tagalog (Philippines)
• Thai (Thailand)
• Tzeltal (Mexico)
• Urdu (India)
• Vietnamese (Vietnam)
All the informants were bilingual or multilingual speakers living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time of the study. Additionally, other languages without native speakers included in the study brought the total sample to 98 languages.
Explaining their data
The authors spend a good amount of the book explaining the basic color terms and how their research shows a universality of these words. They discuss the inter-language and inter-informant variability of their results.
Mapping trials carried out by the authors found that informants placed more emphasis on color focus as compared to color boundaries. Most informants had difficulty in defining color boundaries.
When asked about boundaries, they often requested the researchers to explain their instructions in greater detail. Therefore, in the Berlin and Kay study, the color categories refer to the foci rather than the boundaries of colors.
Color terminology evolution
The basic conclusion of the Berlin and Kay study is that the lack of randomness of color terms over the studied languages suggested a series of evolutionary stages in the development of color words.
Berlin and Kay suggest that there were seven stages in the development of color terms and that these stages followed an exact chronological order. They based this conclusion on the restrictions they uncovered showing languages fell into seven groupings (see above). These stages are evolutionary in the authors’ view with Stage I languages having only colors for “black” and “white.” As languages progress up the ladder of evolution, they gain more color words eventually reaching Stage VII, which has eight or more basic color words.
• Stage I – In the first stage of evolution, the language has two terms for dark and white plus words for dark and white hues.
• Stage II – The second stage involves the adoption of red to include all colors within the range of red and orange along with most yellows, browns, pinks and purples.
• Stage III – The terms for black and white shrink in the scope of colors they represent. In addition to the color red, there is now either a color term for green or yellow. Green terms usually include the English terms for yellow-green, green, blue, blue-green and blue-purple. Yellow will include yellows, tans, and light browns.
• Stage IV – In the fourth stage, there is a clear division between yellow and green. Green will include most blue colors while red will cover reds along with purple, and some yellow-reds and purple-reds.
• Stage V – In Stage V, black and white cover a smaller range of hues, and the color blue becomes distinguishable from green.
• Stage VI – In this stage, a term for the color brown emerges. The authors suggest that the colors purple and pin generally come from the red color although in some cases evidence points to origin from the color black.
• Stage VII – At the seventh stage, the language develops terms for eight basic colors. Most languages in this category have terms for all eleven basic colors.
While Berlin and Kay’s book had and continues to have significant influence, it has also encountered criticism from many corners and even from the authors themselves in their latter work.
Most researchers question the order of the stages and many have found faults in the study’s methodology. In many languages, for example, speakers can signify differences in color, not by separate terms, but by variations in syntax, morphology, tone and inflection.