Our Colorful Language

I saw this fascinating page about words for colors in different languages at Ned Gulley’s Starchamber blog. Here’s the relevant passage:

Looking at the chart below: Berlin & Kay’s landmark study (1969) of 98 languages showed that if a language has a name for a color in a higher-numbered column it always has a name for the ones to the left (i.e. if a language has only 2 color words they will always be white and black; if it has 5 they will always be white, black, red, green and yellow, etc.).


I took data from Google Ngrams, where Google scanned the text of millions of books, and summed the number of times that each of the color words above appeared (Actually, I also looked for ‘grey’ as an alternative to ‘gray’, and ‘violet’ and ‘indigo’ as alternatives to ‘purple’).

It turns out that the ordering of the popularity of different color words among different languages is basically the same as their popularity in English itself. That is, the fraction of language that have a word for ‘green’ is higher than the fraction that have a word for ‘pink’; As well, ‘green’ is more popular in English than ‘pink’.

(click image to enlarge)

English saw a dramatic increase in the use of the word ‘black’ in the late 1960s as racial issues became more popular, but the ordering of white, black and red was the same in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, as it is now.

One exception is the word ‘blue’, which can also mean ‘depressed’, though I am not certain that usage is frequent enough to make such a difference. I am also surprised a bit that ‘orange’ was the lowest among the major colors, since it can also refer to the fruit.

I wonder if this is true in other major languages as well, but am not interested in sifting through Google’s data for German, Russian, French, Spanish, etc right now.

I have, however, been looking at the frequency of other single-word color terms (like ‘aquamarine’ and ‘beige’) and will try to write about that whenever I get the chance.

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