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The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

Why so many languages invented words for colors in the same order.

Christophe Haubursin is a senior producer for the Vox video team. Since joining the team in 2016, he has produced for Vox’s YouTube channel and Emmy-nominated shows Glad You Asked and Explained.

In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book on a pretty groundbreaking idea: Every culture in history invented words for colors in the exact same order.

They reached their conclusion based on a simple color identification test, where 20 respondents identified 330 colored chips by name. If a language had six words, they were always black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were always black, white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always black, white, and red, and so on.

The theory was revolutionary, and it shaped our understanding of how color terminologies emerge. But the idea comes with a few caveats, since all languages do not treat colors the same way grammatically as English does.

In the Yele language of Papua New Guinea, for example, their five “basic color words” only cover shades of red, white, and black. Those words are reduplications of words that reference objects — so mtyemtye (red) literally translates as “parrot-parrot.” But the language also includes a broad array of non-reduplicated words for things like ash, bananas, and the sky that are used to describe color. Those kinds of words aren’t always acknowledged as “basic color words,” but leaving them out ignores the true scope of the language.

Watch the video above to learn more about the universal pattern across many of the world’s color vocabularies.