Why so many English color words?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Dinosaur, Oct 17, 2011.

  1. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

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    English seems to have a lot of color words, more than most other languages (I think). I wonder why.

    The reasons for special vocabularies in other languages is obviously due to culture. Lap Landers have a lot of words relating to reindeer; Tribal-originating languages (Hebrew & arabic) have a lot of words relating to kinship; French has extra vocabulary relating to food.

    Why does English have so many color words?

    I am ignoring the hundreds (maybe thousands) of color words due due to the paint industry fashion industry, & interior decorators. I am also ignoring descriptive phrases & colors derived from them: Ruby red, emerald green, robins egg blue, et cetera.

    Consider the following (others might be able to add a few).
    Red, pink, maroon, crimson, scarlet, vermilion
    White, black, grey
    Green
    Blue, violet
    Purple, orange,
    Brown​
    The above are arbitrary categories due to my own views. purple & orange are related in my mind due to being a mixture of colors (red/blue & red/yellow). Perhaps violet should be omitted due for the same reason that ruby & emerald are ingored. Perhaps beige should be added, although I consider that an interior decorator color.

    The number of words for red-like hues is amazing. I do not think any other language has so many.
     
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  3. scheherazade Northern Horse Whisperer Valued Senior Member

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    Hello Dinosaur,
    You have selected an interesting topic, and your observation that culture seems to have a bearing on the nuances of language is observable. As example, the Eskimos have more words for snow than other cultures, which seems quite logical as their lives depend upon an intimate understanding of the snow and weather conditions. Some snow is user friendly, in that it can be used to construct shelters, or has a higher water content when melted, while some snow can be deceptive and dangerous, as in snow that bridges crevices over sea ice or glaciers.

    That you have selected English as being the language of greatest color word diversity, I will leave for others to debate, as I would rather examine why any language might have so many words for color.

    For the majority of persons who are sighted, it is our visual input upon which we are most dependent. We experience the world through color, of varying hue and intensity and therefore if we wish to convey anything to another with precision, we need words that can differentiate these experiences.

    We distinguish between other people based on visual input of shape and color, yet people can be quite similar in build and so to point out one person from another in a crowd, we may have to depend upon refinement of color. As example, some establishments such as the military and private schools may have a dress code that intentionally prohibits such differentiation, the reasons for which can be a separate discussion.
     
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  5. scheherazade Northern Horse Whisperer Valued Senior Member

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    To continue my thoughts on color, we experience weather and the seasons through color, and our food and beverage choices are largely based on our past experience of their color in combination with the flavor and textures that we have then associated with them.

    You mention red as being a color which has many permutations and descriptors, and red is also one of the more difficult colors to capture using visual imaging equipment, according to one of my friends who is a cameraman in the industry.

    In our attempts to convey the full depth and nuance of our experiences, we have endeavored to expand language so as to capture these subtle differences.

    With the advent of technology, we are now exposed to a far greater range of opportunities than previous generations and this technology has also enabled visual representation.

    Interesting then, that the same representation may appear different on a range of monitors or screens and will also be viewed differently depending on the eyesight of the viewer, their age and gender also affecting their view. (color blindness being another).
     
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  7. scheherazade Northern Horse Whisperer Valued Senior Member

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    Red is a color that invokes a lot of imagery and emotion. Consider the reaction one may feel to this simple image of a young women eating a healthy snack.

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  8. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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  9. herbbread Registered Member

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    I also don't know if English has the most words for different colors, but I agree that the reason for having so many color words is primarily because vision is the most relied-upon sense, and our world is largely experienced through vision. I believe other languages have quite a few words for various colors, and that in fact, Russian (I believe) has different words for a light blue and a dark blue.

    Not sure if anyone else has seen the XKCD color survey results, but they're quite interesting. The writer of the comic just had a survey in which he would display random colors on the users screen and ask them to name the colors. A ton of people did the survey and he got some interesting findings:

    I can't post links yet, but search google for "xkcd color survey results"
     
  10. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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  11. herbbread Registered Member

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    Thanks signal!
     
    Last edited: Oct 18, 2011
  12. scheherazade Northern Horse Whisperer Valued Senior Member

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    Your scholarly article aside, Signal, I agree that many may have embellished the number of words with which the Eskimos describe snow, yet I stand my statement that they use more words than the rest of us.

    I worked for some time with a young man of that culture and so I find his sharing of more relevance than that of your essayist.

    For that matter, the First Nations people of Yukon have a broad vocabulary relating to snow also, as many of them still spend time on the land in traditional pursuits of fishing, hunting and trapping, experiences which I have also had.

    From the link by Signal.

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  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Many a color is named after the first thing people saw that was that color, or the source of the first dye discovered to yield it. "Orange," for example, is named after the fruit, "violet" and "lavender" are named after the flowers, and "purple" comes from "porphyry," a purple stone.

    "Crimson" derives from "kermes," the name of an insect from which crimson dye was first obtained. And to complete the circle, "kermes" derives from Sanskrit krmi-ja, which means "red dye from a worm." Vermilion dye was also first extracted from a small worm, vermiculus in Latin.

    Of the "basic" colors, as far as I can tell only red goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, since it has cognates in both the Western branch of the family (Germanic, Latin and Greek) and the Eastern branch (Slavic, at least). The other colors were more recently named and have different names in the various Indo-European language groups. Green is verdis in Latin and chloros in Greek.

    This suggests to me that people keep renaming colors every couple of thousand years. Who knows, in 4011 what we call white may be ecru.

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  14. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    The visual spectrum is continuous so how it is split up into named colors is arbitrary.

    Some primitive societies have only a few named colors, a few have only one but it is always what we call red. I suspect blood being red is why.
     
  15. Anti-Flag Pun intended Registered Senior Member

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    I suppose Violet is a colour in the rainbow so it's probably not unreasonable to include it, and likewise Indigo should be in there too. But then we're talking of a spectrum of colours so where to draw the line? Cyan? Magenta? Fuschia? Amber? Gold? Silver? Lilac? I mean, many colours are found in nature so do we include them? Quite a few shades of green....
     
  16. Anti-Flag Pun intended Registered Senior Member

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    What snack?
     
  17. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    As stated in post 11, you see different / distinct colors in what is a continuum only because of training and fact you have separate names. There are no natural boundaries between the named colors.
     
  18. herbbread Registered Member

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    Very true. There aren't actually any boundaries between colors besides the arbitrary ones we impose on them. It's a full continuous spectrum of wavelengths.

    In a somewhat tangential topic, while the continuum of colors is continuous, the perceptual representation of colors in the brain may actually be affected by the language one speaks. The Whorf hypothesis states besides language reflecting cultural values, the language one speaks in turn shapes how we think. In one psychophysical test of this, a group of researchers found that Russians, who make an obligatory distinction between light blue ("goluboy") and dark blue ("siniy"), are faster in discriminating between colors in the two categories than English speakers who have no such obligatory distinction between the categories.

    reference:
    Winawer et al., Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. PNAS (2006)
     
  19. Cifo Day destroys the night, Registered Senior Member

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    The human eye can discriminate among 20 million colors. Some languages/cultures recognize more variations in color than others, and some languages do not even have descriptive words to separate the visual spectrum into the major colors divisions recognized by English (black, blue, green, orange, purple, red, white, and yellow).

    I would guess that, the British having made English a universal language, it adopted many names of colors and other attributes. Consider a certain kind of cloth or apparel: jeans, denim, and dungaree; which nowadays means the same thing, although the (originally different) clothes came from different locations (respectively: Genoa in Italy, (de) Nimes in France, and Dungri in India). Or consider the words obtained through various linguistic paths from the Arabic sharbat (meaning a drink): syrup, sherbet, and sorbet. And in Chinese, the word qīng can mean: blue, green, grey or even clear, depending on the context.

    As for the color red, the English language has: Alizarin red, aniline red, aurora red, beet-red, Bengal red, bittersweet, blood-red, brick-red, caldron, candy apple red, carmine, carthamus red, cerise, cherry-red, Chinese red, chrome-red, claret, Congo red, coral-red, crimson, damask, far infrared, fire engine red, fuchsia, garnet, geranium lake, Harvard crimson, hyacinth red, Indian ocher, Indian red, infrared, magenta, maroon, Morocco red, nacarat, nacarine, near infrared, old rose, pink, red-gold, rose blush, rose de Pompadour, rose du Barry, rose, ruby, russet, rust, scarlet, solferino, terra cotta, Turkey red, Tyrian purple, Venetian red, and vermilion.
     
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Denim is the fabric. Women wear denim skirts and we all wear denim jackets. Dungarees: now there's a word I haven't heard since the 1950s. It originally meant overalls, and still carries that meaning in the U.K. Eventually in the U.S. it became a synonym for jeans, and was briefly revived by Pat Boone's minor hit "Dungaree Doll." But I don't find it used at all today except as humor.
     
  21. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    The Wikipedia article on color terms provides an overview of the topic.

    One way to think of color words is also to distinguish between "primary color terms" and "secondary color terms."

    Primary color terms are those which refer only to the color, and/or which we experience as impossible to understand their etymology. Red, black, white, green are such terms.

    Secondary color terms are those we experience as clearly connected to or derived from terms for other things. Orange, saffron, fuchsia, violet, lavender, mustard, olive, peach are such terms. The more novel versions are terms like desert sand or cosmic latte.
    Secondary color terms are also those containing qualifiers such as light, dark, baby, hot, pale.

    Many color words are borrowed from other languages, such as beige, ecru, khaki and mauve.


    What is interesting is how come we are trained into perceiving all these different colors. How come this is important to us?
     
  22. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    I am sure that they use more words than the rest of us.
    That doesn't mean they have more words than the English vocabulary provides.


    What kind of linguistic rigor have you applied to your analysis?

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    But are those different words for snow as different as "red" and "black"?

    Or are they terms of the type "light red," "dark red," "reddish," "blood red," "red for grading school papers," "Mary's favorite color"?
     
  23. Anti-Flag Pun intended Registered Senior Member

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    Agreed, that's why it's hard to have a debate on how many colour words there are as whatever way we name colours is fairly arbitrary.
     

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