How complex are colours in your tok ples?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how to judge where your language ranks on the world’s colour complexity scale.

FOR the most part, human eyes are genetically pretty much the same the world over. Of course, the colour of the eyes differs between different people, and some of us are blessed with very sharp eyesight, while other unfortunate ones (like me) are born with eyes that require spectacles, but the actual mechanism of how eyes perceive wave lengths along a certain spectrum, change that light energy to electrical synapses, and carry those signals to the brain, is the same in all humans.
Similarly, the laws of physics are the same around the world, so light energy from the sun is broken by a prism into different colours in the same way whether one is in Goroka, New York, or Tokyo. But how people talk about the colours they see can be different, depending on the language they speak.
This was noticed for the first time in 1969 by two Americans, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Key. When they examined different cultures and languages, they found that some languages had only two words for different colours, which they translated into English as “dark/black” and “bright/white”. People who speak these languages talk about the colours in the world as being either one or the other. In other words, they do not make differences such as “red”, “blue”, “yellow” and so on.
They found that as languages develop more complex colour naming systems, they do so in the same way. For example, all languages have at least words for “black” and “white”. Some languages have only these two words. But if a language has three colour words, the third word will almost always be the equivalent of “red”. It turns out that human languages almost always develop colour terms in the following seven stages of complexity:

2 words: white, black
3 words: white, black, red
4 words: white, black, red, yellow or green-blue
5 words: white, black, red, yellow, green-blue
6 words: white, black, red, yellow, green, blue
7 words: white, black, red, yellow, green, blue, brown
8 words: white, black, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, pink, orange, purple
A word for “grey” can appear in any of the stages that has yellow.

Are colours the same everywhere?

What this means is that any language that has a separate word for “brown” will almost certainly have words for “green”, “blue”, “yellow”, “red”, white”, and “black” as well as possibly “grey”, but it might or might not have words for “pink”, orange”, and “purple”.
You can see how complex colour terminology is in your language by thinking of the words for describing colours and seeing how many words it has. If we look at Tok Pisin, we see that there it has all the words in the seven-word row (waitpela, blakpela, retpela, yelopela, blupela, grinpela, and braunpela), but it does not have words for “grey”, “pink”, “orange”, or “purple” in the eight-color row. We can therefore call Tok Pisin a “seven-colour” language. You can test your language in the same way.
You might be tempted to think that languages spoken by technologically less developed cultures would have fewer colour terms than those spoken by technologically developed cultures, and you might even think that we can divide languages into “primitive” and “advanced” by looking at this complexity in their colour terms. In fact, this was the cause of good-natured joking when I was at university. My Israeli classmate and I compared my English and his Hebrew colour terms. We found that he and other Hebrew speakers make differentiations and had one more colour term than my fellow English speakers and I did.

Do Europeans see colours the same way as you do?

Was he “advanced” and I “primitive”? You can imagine what answer he liked to make in his joking! But joking aside, we both realised that it was foolish to think of Israel as being in some way “advanced” and the United States as being “primitive”.
When I went to work in Japan, I learned that this hierarchy of complexity of colour terms explained Japanese traffic lights. In most countries, traffic lights are like those in PNG – red, yellow, and green. But in Japan they are often red, yellow, and blue. This is because traditionally, Japanese was a five-colour words language: “shiroi” (white), “kuroi” (black), “akai” (red), “kiroi” (yellow), and “aoi” (green-blue). Because “aoi” covers all shades of what English speakers call “green” and “blue”, some Japanese manufacturers of traffic lights produce the “go” light in what English speakers would call “green”, but many others make the “go” light in what English speakers would call “blue”.
To make Japanese colour terminology more confusing, since World War II and the massive influence of American culture in Japan, many Japanese have adopted English names for colours. With this has come a partial re-structuring of the language to the English eight-colour system, separating “blue” and “green” and adding the English words for “pink”, “orange”, and “purple”. Today this eight-colour system with words borrowed from English is used side by side with the original Japanese five-colour system.
The fact that human languages develop colour terminology in the same way shows that to some extent, our minds are pre-wired to look at the world and to talk about it in the same way. We are built in such a way that our society will not develop a word for “brown” until we have already developed words for “white”, “black”, “red”, “yellow”, “green” and “blue”, and this tends to be true no matter where on the globe our society has developed. Humans are, after all, one species, with brains that work in the same patterns.

  • Prof Volker lives in New Ireland and is an Adjunct Professor in the Language and Culture Research Centre at James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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