Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mapping Color Names

Where does "purple" stop and "pink" begin? At what boundary does "green" become "yellow?" Above is a map for an average English speaker.

The blog Empirical Zeal digs into the question of how cultures have arrived at their mental maps of color names.
"The picture that’s emerging is that colors aren’t quite random slices of the visual pie. They’re somewhat basic categories that humans from different cultures gravitate towards, and must have to do with how the biology of how we see the world. In other words, rainbows have seams. We can distill a rainbow into its basic visual ingredients, and a handful of colors come out."
The Crayola-fication of the World.


Rachel E. Holmen said...

I used to work for Brent Berlin, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley who was trying to map color names in different cultures and languages. You can find some of his work via an internet search.

Tometheus said...

BTW, the picture you posted is originally from this blog in case you haven't read it:

Rich said...

I've always been wondering what exactly "purple" might be; because it's considered to be such a regal colour.

Elena Jardiniz said...

In English we use a lot of object names for colors - coral, teal (the duck), orange (yes, from the fruit - naranjo in Spanish). Turquoise, brick, rust, chestnut, amber, emerald, the infamous 'aubergine' (a $1.95 word for eggplant) mauve (what IS that color, anyway?) puce - exactly between brown, grey and violet. Taupe, caput mortum is a marvelous pinky-violetish-greyed brown pigment.

Midori is a melon, isn't it? Apricot and peach are both quite different from the fruit, and yet we 'recognize these when we see them'.

Violet which is now synonymous with purple is, in fact, a different color entirely. Violet is that color in the picture, 'purple' is actually a medium dark red - cadmium red dark.

Porphyry, the purple of Imperial days, is a dark reddish marble and late Byzantine emperors had to be born in a special room clad with that stone. Purpleheart wood is a similar color.

Gregory Lee said...

The book Basic Color Terms by Berlin and Kay has been important in the debate about whether language influences our thought. The Wikipedia has a nice article about this,, as well as a review of the narrower topic on color terms, .

dsc said...
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dsc said...

Pretty interesting. My bet is that there isn't so much anything special with the colors themselves, except perhaps for being being "peaks" of differentiation in some instances (which perhaps has something to do with the way a given light frequency physically excites given photoreceptors in certain "optimal" ways), and just the most common "local colors" in environments where words for that slice were coined. But I know nothing, really.

What I really find amazing is how the wording may actually make people effectively "colorblind", without any actual difference in cones and rods. It's not just that some cultures have different ranges for the names, but their actual discrimination is poorer within the variation within a color that receives some color name (or something, the key is that it's not just name, but actual discrimination that is affected). That is, there's at least an African tribe in which people have tremendous difficulty separating a cyan-leaning color from a "pure green", even though they can easily pick up some green shades that most people would just look at and say, "are you serious, are these different colors?" Like just subtle gradations on a color chart, but they can spot just as easy as we spot cyan from lime green. Amazing.

There's a radiolab episode about that:

Curiously enough, it seems that children have different abilities in color discrimination before they learn words for colors.

dsc said...

The blog Empirical Zeal has a second part of that post, which addresses some of the things I've mentioned. In the "graphs" posted there I think the color difference between the greens is much greater than the one I saw once before. But perhaps that's just a byproduct of both "different colors" being on the same position among the other squares in both groups, and of me knowing what to expect already. But I could swear they were all lighter and more saturated. If I recall I had to use an "eyedropper" tool to prove to myself that were really different colors. But then there's also the issue of color reproduction through different mediums, from the original researchers, to eventually reaching my monitor, from who-knows how many intermediates.