Color Categorization

Lexical color categorization consists of the division of color sensations into classes corresponding to the significata of the color words of a particular language. Perceptual color categorization consists of the division of the color sensations into classes by the perceptual processes of an organism -- human or nonhuman, adult or neonate, possessed of knowledge of a language or not so possessed. Conflict among views on the relationship of lexical to perceptual color categorization has prevailed for over a century. Nineteenth-century classicists, anthropologists, and opthalmologists were aware that all languages do not reflect identical lexical classifications of color. The classicist (and statesman) William Gladstone concluded that differences in color lexicons reflect differences in perceptual abilities, for example, "that the organ of color and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age" (see Berlin and Kay 1969:135). The opthalmologist Hugo Magnus recognized that failure to distinguish colors lexically need not indicate inability to distinguish them perceptually (see Berlin and Kay 1969: 144ff). These and other late nineteenth-century scholars strongly tended to view differences in color lexicons in evolutionary terms.

In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Edward SAPIR (e.g., 1921: 219) and B. L. Whorf (e.g., 1956 [1940]: 212ff) rejected evolutionism for the doctrine of radical linguistic and cultural relativity. The favorite field for the empirical establishment and rhetorical defense of the relativist view, which became established doctrine in the 1950s and 1960s, was the lexicon of color. With respect to color categorization, there have been two major traditions of research stemming from the relativity thesis: a within-language, correlational line of research and a cross-language, descriptive one.

Early work in the former tradition (e.g., Brown and Lenne berg 1954; Lenneberg and Roberts 1956) is primarily concerned with establishing a correlation between a linguistic variable distinguishing colors (for example, how easy different colors are to name or how easy they are to communicate about) and a nonlinguistic cognitive variable over colors: memorability. Discovery of such a correlation was interpreted as support for the Sapir-Whorf view that linguistic categorization can influence nonlinguistic perception/cognition. In the 1950s and 1960s, such correlations were reported within English and, to a limited extent, in other languages (Stefflre, Castillo Vales, and Morley 1966). Because it was assumed at the time that the linguistic variable (codability or communication accuracy) would vary across languages, correlation between a linguistic and nonlinguistic variable within a single language (almost always English) was taken to validate the doctrine that the coding systems of different languages induce differences in the nonlinguistic cognition of their speakers. Eleanor Rosch (e.g., Heider 1972) challenged this assumption on the basis of the apparent universal lexical salience of certain "focal" colors (identified by Berlin and Kay 1969). Rosch showed that universal perceptual salience determines both the nonlinguistic and the linguistic variables of the correlational approach, thus undercutting the logic of this line of research. Rosch's view was criticized by Lucy and Shweder (1979), who also challenged her experimental procedure; Lucy and Shweder's experimental procedure was in turn challenged by Kay and Kempton (1984), who supported Rosch's view of the matter. (Kay and Kempton, using a noncorrelational, cross-linguistic experimental procedure, showed that certain nonlinguistic color classification judgments may be influenced by the lexical classification of color in a language, while others are not so influenced, thus re-establishing limited Whorfian effects in the color domain.)

In the tradition of cross-language description, the studies of the 1950s and 1960s likewise reflected the dominance of radical linguistic relativism (Ray 1952; Conklin 1955; Gleason 1961: 4). These studies sought to discover and celebrate the differences among color lexicons. In 1969, using the original stimulus set of Lenneberg and Roberts (1956), Berlin and Kay compared the denotation of basic color terms in twenty languages and, based on these findings, examined descriptions of seventy-eight additional languages from the literature. They reported that there are universals in the semantics of color: the major color terms of all languages are focused on one of eleven landmark colors. Further, they postulated an evolutionary sequence for the development of color lexicons according to which black and white precede red, red precedes green and yellow, green and yellow precede blue, blue precedes brown, and brown precedes purple, pink, orange and gray. These results were challenged on experimental grounds, mostly by anthropologists (e.g., Hickerson 1971; Durbin 1972; Collier 1973), and largely embraced by psychologists (e.g., Brown 1976; Miller and Johnson-Laird 1976; Ratliff 1976). A number of field studies stimulated by Berlin and Kay tended to confirm the main lines of the universal and evolutionary theory, while leading to reconceptualization of the encoding sequence (Berlin and Berlin 1975; Kay 1975). Based on earlier, unpublished work of Chad K. McDaniel, which established the identity of some of the universal semantic foci of Berlin and Kay with the psychophysically determined unique hues (see also in this connection Miller and Johnson-Laird 1976: 342-355; Ratliff 1976; Zollinger 1979), Kay and McDaniel (1978) again reconceptualized the encoding sequence, introducing the notion of fuzzy set into a formal model of color lexicons, and emphasized the role in early systems of categories representing fuzzy unions of Hering primaries. Kay and McDaniel also related the universal semantics of color to the psychophysical and neurophysiological results of Russel De Valois and his associates (e.g., De Valois, Abramov, and Jacobs 1966).

Since 1978, two important surveys of color lexicons have been conducted, both supporting the two broad Berlin and Kay hypotheses of semantic universals and evolutionary sequence in the lexical encoding of colors: the World Color Survey (Kay et al. 1997) and the Mesoamerican Color Survey (MacLaury 1997). Relativist objection to the Berlin and Kay paradigm of research on color categorization has continued, emphasis shifting away from criticism of the rigor with which the Berlin and Kay procedures of mapping words to colors were applied toward challenging the legitimacy of any such procedures (e.g., Lucy 1997; Saunders and van Brake l997)

See also

Additional links

-- Paul Kay


Berlin, B., and E. A. Berlin. (1975). Aguaruna color categories. American Ethnologist 2:61-87.

Berlin, B., and P. Kay. (1969). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: University of California.

Brown, R. W. (1976). Reference. Cognition 4:125-153.

Brown, R. W., and E. H. Lenneberg. (1954). A study of language and cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49:454-462.

Collier, G. A. (1973). Review of Basic Color Terms. Language 49:245-248.

Conklin, H. C. (1955). Hanunóo color categories. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11:339-344.

De Valois, R. L., I. Abramov, and G. H. Jacobs. (1966). Analysis of response patterns of LGN cells. Journal of the Optical Society of America 56:966-977.

Durbin, M. (1972). Review of Basic Color Terms. Semiotica 6:257-278.

Gleason, H. A. (1961). An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Heider, E. R. (1972). Universals in color naming and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology 93:1-20.

Hickerson, N. (1971). Review of Basic Color Terms. International Journal of American Linguistics 37:257-270.

Kay, P. (1975). Synchronic variability and diachronic change in basic color terms. Language in Society 4:257-270.

Kay, P., B. Berlin, L. Maffi, and W. Merrifield. (1997). Color naming across languages. In C. L. Hardin and L. Maffi, Eds., Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kay, P., and W. M. Kempton. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86:65-79.

Kay, P., and C. K. McDaniel. (1978). The linguistic significance of the meanings of basic color terms. Language 54:610-646.

Lenneberg, E. H., and J. M. Roberts. (1956). The language of experience: A study in methodology. Memoir 13 of International Journal of American Linguistics.

Lucy, J. A. (1997). The linguistics of color. In C. L. Hardin and L. Maffi, Eds., Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lucy, J. A., and R. A. Shweder. (1979). The effect of incidental conversation on memory for focal colors. American Anthropologist 90:923-931.

MacLaury, R. E. (1997). Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Miller, G. A., and P. Johnson-Laird. (1976). Language and Perception. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ratliff, F. (1976). On the psychophysiological bases of universal color terms. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120:311-330.

Ray, V. (1952). Techniques and problems in the study of human color perception. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 8:251-259.

Sapir, E. (1921). Language. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Saunders, B. A. C., and J. van Brakel. (1997). Are there non-trivial constraints on colour categorization? Brain and Behavioral Sciences.

Stefflre, V., V. Castillo Vales, and L. Morley. (1966). Language and cognition in Yucatan: A cross-cultural replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4:112-115.

Whorf, B. L. (1956, 1940). Science and linguistics. In J. B. Carroll, Ed., Language, Thought and Reality: The Collected Papers of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Originally published in Technology Review 42:229-231, 247 - 248.

Zollinger, H. (1979). Correlations between the neurobiology of colour vision and the psycholinguistics of colour naming. Experientia 35:1-8.

Further Readings

Berlin, B., P. Kay, and W. R. Merrifield. (1985). Color term evolution: recent evidence from the World Color Survey. Paper presented at the 84th Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D. C.

Bornstein, M. H. (1973a). The psychophysiological component of cultural difference in color naming and illusion susceptibility. Behavioral Science Notes 1:41-101.

Bornstein, M. H. (1973b). Color vision and color naming: A psychophysiological hypothesis of cultural difference. Psychological Bulletin 80:257-285.

Burnham, R. W., and J. R. Clark. (1955). A test of hue memory. Journal of Applied Psychology 39:164-172.

Collier, G. A. (1976). Further evidence for universal color categories. Language 52:884-890.

De Valois, R. L., and G. H. Jacobs. (1968). Primate color vision. Science 162:533-540.

De Valois, R. L., H. C. Morgan, M. C. Polson, W. R. Mead, and E. M. Hull. (1974). Psychophysical studies of monkey vision. I: Macaque luminosity and color vision tests. Vision Research 14:53-67.

Dougherty, J. W. D. (1975). A Universalist Analysis of Variation and Change in Color Semantics. Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley.

Dougherty, J. W. D. (1977). Color categorization in West Futunese: variability and change. In B.G. Blount and M. Sanches, Eds., Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Change. New York: Plenum, pp. 133-148.

Hage, P., and K. Hawkes. (1975). Binumarin color categories. Ethnology 24:287-300.

Hardin, C. L. (1988). Color for Philosophers. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Hardin, C. L., and L. Maffi, Eds. (1997). Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heider, E. R. (1972). Probabilities, sampling and the ethnographic method: The case of Dani colour names. Man 7:448-466.

Heider, E. R., and D. C. Olivier. (1972). The structure of the color space for naming and memory in two languages. Cognitive Psychology 3:337-354.

Kay, P., B. Berlin, and W. Merrifield. (1991). Biocultural implications of systems of color naming. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 1:12-25.

Kuschel, R., and T. Monberg. (1974). "We don't talk much about colour here": A study of colour semantics on Bellona Island. Man 9:213-242.

Landar, H. J., S. M. Ervin, and A. E. Horrowitz. (1960). Navajo color categories. Language 36:368-382.

Lenneberg, E. H. (1961). Color naming, color recognition, color discrimination: A reappraisal. Perceptual and Motor Skills 12:375-382.

MacLaury, R. E. (1987). Coextensive semantic ranges: different names for distinct vantages of one category. Papers from the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, Part I, 268-282.

Shepard, R. (1992). The perceptual organization of colors. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, Eds., The Adapted Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zollinger, H. (1976). A linguistic approach to the cognition of colour vision. Folia Linguistica 9:265-293.