Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) is a book by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. Berlin and Kay's work proposed that the basic color terms in a culture, such as black, brown or red, are predictable by the number of color terms the culture has. (All cultures have terms for black/dark and white/bright. If a culture has three color terms the third is red. If a culture has four it has yellow or green...)

Berlin and Kay posit seven levels in which cultures fall, with Stage I languages having only the colors black (dark–cool) and white (light–warm). Languages in Stage VII have eight or more basic color terms. This includes English, which has eleven basic color terms. The authors theorize that as languages evolve, they acquire new basic color terms in a strict chronological sequence; if a basic color term is found in a language, then the colors of all earlier stages should also be present. The sequence is as follows:

Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm (this covers a larger set of colors than English "black" and "white".)
Stage II: Red
Stage III: Either green or yellow
Stage IV: Both green and yellow
Stage V: Blue
Stage VI: Brown
Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange, or grey

The work has achieved widespread influence. However, the constraints in color-term ordering have been substantially loosened, both by Berlin and Kay in later publications, and by various critics. Barbara Saunders questioned the methodologies of data collection and the cultural assumptions underpinning the research, as has Stephen C. Levinson.

Recently a simple computational model suggested how 'a pure cultural negotiation with a slight non-language specific bias can account for the observed regularities'.

See also

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