Why so many English color words?

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

  1. scheherazade Northern Horse Whisperer Valued Senior Member

    Good list, Cifo, but it's lacking a couple of my favorite shades of red.

    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.

    Perhaps we could add burgundy red, cranberry red and wine red?

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  3. Me-Ki-Gal Banned Banned

    How bout Hot tamale week red ? That is when girl friend is on period .
    Why is complementary colors pleasing ? Is it smooth across all cultures ?
    Do Iranians and Israelis see the same complimentary colors as pleasing ? Native Americans and Europeans ? What makes it so ? Working with color coordination with customers of all nationalities tells Me it is a natural conclusion of humans . Agreeable complementary colors across all cultures . I don't know that for sure ? I think it might be ? What you all think Class ?
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It's physiology: the way our species's eyes are constructed. We have three kinds of color receptor cells that center on the electromagnetic frequencies of blue, yellow and green light. A light wave that is not directly on one of those centers will activate two cells. This is where we get the notion that, for example, purple is a combination of red and blue. (I have vastly oversimplified what I understand of this, and what I understand is a vast oversimplification of the actual science, but my basic premise is sound even if the details are off.)

    Other animals have different color receptors. I believe dogs only have two, so they don't see the richness of color that we see. If they opened paint stores they wouldn't have so many different names for them. The cone cells, the photoreceptors that are tuned to specific wavelengths, are not very sensitive, so animals that are nocturnal, or primarily so, have more rod cells, a different kind of photoreceptor that only sees in black and white but can see in dimmer light. Cats have very poor color vision, perhaps they only have one kind of cone and the rest of their photoreceptors are all rods.

    Other species have more kinds of color receptors than we do. Many birds, for example, have a photoreceptor for a band of light up in the ultraviolet range that is invisible to us. This is how all those birds that look alike to us can tell each other apart: the males and females have different patterns of ultraviolet coloring in their feathers. Bees have even more different kinds of color receptors besides ultraviolet. This helps them determine whether a flower is at the perfect stage of its development to yield nectar. Bees and angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved at the same time. Without flowers bees would starve and without bees there'd be nobody to pollinate the flowers.
    I'd have to refer that question to a biologist, but my educated guess is that you're right. The reason is that we all have the same photoreceptor cells so we all see light in the same way. We all "see" orange as a mixture of red and yellow. A dog, a parrot or a bee would not see it the same way.
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  7. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    There is an African tribe (the Himba) that has very few words for different colours.
    As a result, they see colours rather differently to us - or at least they seem to perceive colours differently.
    The colours that fall under each of their words also vary considerably from our perspective, but for them they are almost identical.

    So whereas they may struggle to differentiate between a certain shade of blue and a certain shade of green, since they both fall under the same "colour" (from their perspective)... they easily distinguish between shades of green that we would struggle to distinguish between, because those shades, despite being very close in the spectrum, fall under very different "colours" from their perspective.

    Edit: found the programme I saw this on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b71rT9fU-I

    So the number of words for colours that our society has might actually affect the way we see things. And presumably the number of words we have is a result, in a relative short period, of the need to differentiate between certain things. If there is no need, then why have a word for the difference, and then eventually there may not be a perceived difference (at least with regard colour).

    Bear in mind that colour is a perception created by our brain based upon the wavelengths of the spectrum it is receiving. Our brain quickly adjusts those colours, and optical illusions can easily show this - e.g. the way that a banana under a coloured light still remains yellowish when really it shouldn't (try it at home!).
  8. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Both Sarkus & Fraggle make valid points - I will go a little farther for both:

    ALL perception*** is of a construct of the brain, only stimulated by external objects. You can see things that are not there - only are constructed in your brain. For example many know there is a "blind spot" where the optic nerve enters the retina. Fortunately at least one eye see what is there as these two blind spots do not correspond to the same part of the image falling on the retina. I.e. you can make a small x on sheet of paper disappear from perception with one eye closed by making its image fall on the blind spot of that eye; however, if instead of a small x there is a set of parallel lines you will not preceive any "hole" in the set* where their image is falling on the blind spot of the one open eye. The brain "fills in" the missing part of the retina's neural image.

    As for color, not only is perception strongly influenced by near by colors, and the near by intensity of even white light, it is influenced by what you hve recently looked for some time. (after images etc.)* The three (for humans) distinct retinal color signals are lineraly combined (added and subtracted) in various ways in various prts for the brain (mainly the LGN and V4) so that the final neural representation is in three axis color space. Black to white; Red to green & blue to yellow are these these three. E.g. the same set of nerves firing faster than white light will be red (or green I forget which) but when firing more slowly than white stimulation makes, will make "green" your perception.

    * Even if in fact there is a "hole" in the set of lines on the paper - harder to demonstrate as you must make the real hole fall on the blind spot for the hole to be filed in.

    ** This is not infrequently said to be due to exhaustion of the nerves / color detectors in the retina - not true. It is the much later nerves of the very computationally transformed data in the final red/green or yellow blue representation that get "fatigued" by staring at one color too long then looking at a white wall to perceive the complimentary (red vs green etc) color. "Complimentary colors" are not arbitrary - they are "hard wired" in the brain's computational transforms and have essentially nothing to due with the three types of color nerves in the retina.

    *** I have a crackpot POV about how ALL perception works / is achieved. I am certain the POV accepted by cognitive scientists (Perception "emerges" after many stages of neural computation transforms of sensory data.") is nonsense. Perhaps you would like to read it at:

    http://www.sciforums.com/showpost.php?p=905778&postcount=66 and some posts in a thread on free will, especially this one explaining in more detail my RTS concepts:
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 19, 2011
  9. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    The question is still open as to how come we have so many color terms.
  10. Me-Ki-Gal Banned Banned

    Well that is no mystery . We like to make things up . Like who made up Baby shit brown ? Some funny person . Why ? Cause we are creative humans . I bet some designer made up a new designer color word just now and next spring it will be at Lowes . Like cats and dogs in away . Look how many dogs there are . Designer Dogs at that, Hairless cats what are they good for
  11. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    We didn't always have so many colours.

    Take the Rainbow.

    Red OE Read
    Orange c.1300, from O.Fr. orenge (12c.)
    Yellow O.E. geolu, geolwe.
    Green O.E. grene "green, young, immature, raw,"
    Blue c.1300, bleu, blwe, etc., from O.Fr. blo "pale, pallid, wan, light-colored; blond; discolored; blue, blue-gray," OE Blaw.
    Indigo 1550s, from Sp. indico, Port. endego, and Du. (via Portuguese) indigo, all from L. indicum "indigo," from Gk. indikon "blue dye from India," lit. "Indian (substance),"
    Violet The color sense (late 14c.) developed from the flower.
    From http://www.etymonline.com/

    So an Anglo-Saxon Rainbow would have been
    "Read, Read, Geolwe, Grene, Blaw Blaw Blaw."

    A minor digression. Here is a photo which Anglo Saxons which have said was "blaw".
    What is it? (No cheating please)

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    Last edited: Oct 19, 2011
  12. Anti-Flag Pun intended Registered Senior Member

    According to QI the ancient greeks didn't have a word for blue. They called the sky "Bronze".

    Fraggle care to enlighten us?
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    For people who don't like to hoover very often.
    That's the first I've heard of it.

    Ancient Greek had the word κύανος (kyanos) for dark blue. We retain it, via Latin spelling and phonetics, as cyan, which, due to the vagaries of technology, is now one of the primary colors in computer images.

    Apparently the concept of blue as a distinct color is relatively recent and does not go all the way back to the Neolithic Era when we have our first reconstructed snapshot of the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary. Even in Ancient Greece, an Iron Age civilization, light blue and grey were often counted as subtle shades of the same color, and as Anti notes, the blue of the sky was regarded as a bronze tint.

    Our word "blue" was borrowed from French bleu, but it's not a Latin word. They retained the Germanic word blau from their Frankish ancestors and it underwent the cataclysmic phonetic shift from Latin to French. (Caballus became cheval, aqua became eau, etc.) Otherwise we would be saying "blau" (rhymes with now) like the Germans do, and who knows how we would spell it since the spelling "blow" is already taken.
  14. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    What is this?

    Perhaps they were referring to oxidated bronze.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2011
  15. herbbread Registered Member

    Looks like a bunch of cars submerged in water?
  16. gmilam Valued Senior Member


    Has anyone checked to see if they might be color blind?
  17. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

    My original post which started this thread asked why English seems to have more color words than many (most?) other languages, considering only primary words. Id est: Ignoring phrases such as dark blue, light red, emerald green, et cetera.

    The following is list of primary color words used by most English speakers.
    Red, pink, maroon, crimson, scarlet, vermilion
    White, black, grey
    Brown, tan​
    I omitted orange & violet from my original list --- They are perhaps like emerald green, referring to the color of some commonly known item. I added yellow & tan. It is likely that some others should be added (beige?).

    I think that it is proper to ignore the vocabulary used by artists & the paint/cosmetic industries since they include a large number of color words not in the vocabulary of most English speakers.

    I consider cyan & magenta to be special vocabulary. They are used primarily by photography & computer geeks (I belong to both these geek groups).

    Do other languages have as many color primary words in the vocabulary of those who are not artists, or associated with the paint/cosmetic industries?

    What is the reason for English having more color words, assuming that they do?
  18. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    I would have thought that all the main languages have words for basic colours and a few variations.
    Is there some language you are thinking of which doesn't?
  19. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    No need to as having only a few color names is the rule, not the exception, for simple people living off the land in isolation from other groups. The interesting thing is that when they have only one named color, it is ALWAYS the color we call red. (I think this is related to blood.)
  20. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    In the Western culture, I think they do.

    We must also consider that the process of loaning words from one language into another is very productive in modern culture.

    So for one kind of phenomena, such as the terms for colors, within one language we can find the cumulative color vocabulary from many other languages.

    Ie. on its own, say, French may have had a few original color words that English didn't have, and vice versa. But with English borrowing those words from French, English now has more.
    And if English also borrows specific color terms (or color ideas and using an English word for them) from German, Italian, Indian, etc., English can accumulate quite a color vocabulary.

    English is probably the one language that borrows the most from other languages (or at least English is the one language that borrows a lot and is among the most spoken languages), but I think other languages are also not that much behind, or they borrow from/via English what English has previously borrowed from some other language.

    In the end, modern Western languages have rather similar color vocabularies.
  21. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

  22. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    Good link Signal.
    There's your answer Dinosaur.

    Colours as surnames are common in Britain and equally common in some other countries.
    English Brown, Geman Braun, French Brun, Italian Bruno etc

    The German word for armour is Bruun, which is also a surname.
    I wonder if it comes from the use of leather armour?
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2011
  23. gmilam Valued Senior Member

    Except these people could not see any difference between green & blue. And they could see a difference between what appears to me to be the exact same shade of green. However, this chart shows the RGB values of the greens and a person who lacks one color receptor (aka - color blind) would easily see it. http://boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ring1-RGB.jpg

    That could also explain the inability to distinguish between the blue & green.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2011

Share This Page