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How does language effect the way we perceive colours?

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

Language has a massive impact on the way humans perceive colours. The basic number of colour categories is 11, however not all language have that number.

English has the 11 basic colour categories, Russian has 12 but some languages only have 2 or 3. Languages such as Dani (spoken in Papua New Guinea) and Bassa (spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone) only have 2 terms; dark and light. Dark roughly translates as cool in those languages and light as warm.

Until around 1960s it was widely believed that cultures would choose from the spectrum randomly when picking their colours to name. However, this idea was later proved incorrect when in 1969, researchers Paul Key and Brent Berlin published a book that challenged this idea. Their research suggested that if a language has 6 basic colour words, they were always for black/dark, white/light, red, green, yellow and blue. If it had 4 terms, they were for black, white, red and then either green or yellow. If it only had 3, they were always for black, white and red. However it is the question of how these languages choose which colours should have their own name and which shouldn't. Their first study was criticized due to many factors, one of them being that it did not define what a 'basic colour term' is.

Another researcher, Harold C. Conclin, researched the language Hanuno'o from the Phillippines, where he found out that a word can communicate both colour and physical feeling. Within it, there is a four way classification which first names them by their typical colour reference as black, white, orange-red and light green. Each of there colours has another term attributed to them as in Hanuno'o the basic colour terms are on a spectrum of light vs dark, strength vs weakness and wetness vs dryness. This example of the Hanuno language shows that they would not fit into the colour chip test that was carried out by Kay and Berlin.

In the late 1970s, Berlin and Kay had carried out a more accurate research called The World Colour Survey. This research showed that the colour hierarchy that they first found out proved to be correct as 83% of the languages fit into the hierarchy.

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