Basic Colors – The Eleven Words That Describe All Colors

Basic colors

If you’re curious about colors and their meanings, cultural significance, and physiological effects, you’re likely to notice that – for the English language – we tend to talk about eleven basic colors: red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, brown, black, gray, and white.

When you explore the science of understanding color and color relationships – via a color wheel, for example – you discover that the most common color wheel (yes, there are many!) has twelve colors but lacks black, white, gray, brown, and pink. And in fact, pink is the only pastel to appear in the eleven basic color names we use, and brown is the only shade (a mixture of a color with black.)

So a color wheel doesn’t really answer questions about our color language, but merely makes the topic more complex.

If you’re a serious color geek (like me) you may wonder why that’s the case. Why do we have eleven basic color names? Do other languages have names for the same colors? Do the languages of industrially developed cultures have the same number of colors as less developed cultures? What can different languages tell us about our relationship with color?

Where would you even begin to find the answers to these pressing questions?

Well, as it turns out, these aren’t new questions. In the late 1970s, researchers initiated The World Color Survey to explore several hypotheses about how we think and talk about color, and how languages evolve in terms of color speech. The results of the Survey, published in 2009, provide raw data and analysis based on surveys of 2,616 people, speaking 110 different languages, most of them preindustrial.

There are volumes of scholarly work based on the Survey – enough to keep a gaggle of color-lovers occupied for decades, but one of the most interesting revelations is that it turns out that there are enormous similarities among and across languages in terms of how we categorize colors.

While some languages have as few as two or three basic color categories (or motifs, to use the language of the Survey,) those color categories tend to be consistent across radically different languages, and there’s evidence that suggests the evolution of language and culture proceeds in a fairly predictable way. So cultures with only three color motifs are likely to progress in the finer discrimination among colors in similar ways.

Take the distinction between warm and cool colors. It turns out that even the languages with the fewest distinction between colors divide them between warm and cool. That’s a distinction that holds true across all of the languages and cultures studied. Distinguishing between warm and cool colors matters to all of us.

When you look at all the color motifs among the 110 languages examined by The World Color Survey, you discover eight basic color groupings: red, green, yellow or orange, blue, purple, brown, pink, and grue (green or blue.) When you add the gradient distinctions among black, gray, and white, you end up with eleven color categories – the very same number we use in English.

What The World Color Survey x suggests is that even though we use very different words to describe colors, we appear to think of color in very similar ways, that we group colors together in ways that transcend language and culture.

So to my mind, working with color is working with one of the most fundamental, universal, powerful ways we relate to the world around us. Not one of the languages in the Survey lacked words for color. Knowing that people all over the globe instinctively notice, label, and find it necessary to talk about color reinforces my belief that color is something that unites us all.

Comments

  1. Great post, thank you.

    If you take away the so-called neutrals, the rest of the colors on the list are almost an exact ROYGBIV match. The exception is pink on the eleven colors list, and indigo for ROYGBIV, but you can put indigo in the blue category, and pink with red. So maybe it’s not that much of a coincidence how universal the list is, given how the human eye sees the color spectrum.

    Regarding male/femal differences in seeing color, if you ever get a chance to listen to a recording of “Defending the Caveman,” a one-man show created by Rob Becker (and passed on to another entertainer), there’s a good bit about men, women and color, among other things. My husband and I used to go to Becker’s show every year.

  2. Now I wonder if the 10 million different colors, most of which are unnamed, fall evenly into the eleven categories…. and if not, which
    are dominant. Which have the fewest?

    Isn’t it true that women’s eyes have more color rods than men’s, but men’s eyes have more black and white rods? Does that account for women being more likely to actually see color gradations?

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