Naming the rainbow : colour language, colour science, and culture

(Volume 274, Synthese Library, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998)




In the middle of the 19th century William Gladstone, classicist and Prime-Minister, argued that Homeric Greeks perceived colour differently from contemporary Europeans. Gladstone's evidence for this claim was scholarly and philological. The colour words one found in Homer differed from contemporary colour words. Gladstone proposed an evolutionary explanation for this difference: colour vision must have evolved between antiquity and the nineteenth-century.

Gladstone's Homer and the Homeric Age was published in 1858, contemporaneously with Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859). The idea of evolution was in the air and studies of colour language differences among cultures—not just Gladstone’s—appropriated them. When, in the eighteen-seventies, the German ophthalmologist H. Magnus sent a ten-chip colour test with sixty-one missionaries and traders the findings returned were interpreted in an evolutionary manner as well. But—unlike Gladstone—Magnus argued that it was colour vocabulary that evolved and not colour vision.

A further twist to the evolutionary hypothesis was introduced by W. H. R. Rivers. As a part of the Royal Anthropological Institute's turn-of-the-century expeditions to Australia, Africa, and India, Rivers tested the natives as to their ability to discriminate colours and collected data on native colour vocabularies. Rivers agreed that colour perception was pretty much invariant and, also, that colour vocabularies were different. He took the further step of connecting social development with mental development. Societies evolved, as did the minds of their members. One could use colour vocabulary to gauge the social and mental evolution of a culture: "the order in which these four tribes are thus placed on the grounds of the development of their colour languages corresponds with the order in which they would be placed on the grounds of their general intellectual and cultural development."

More than a half century later the anthropologist Brent Berlin and the linguist Paul Kay, both of the University of California at Berkeley, published Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969). In this book they argued, very much like Rivers, that "there appears to be a positive correlation between general cultural complexity (and/or level of technological development) and complexity of colour vocabulary" (p. 16). Berlin and Kay hedge this claim more than Rivers did. The rank-ordering of cultures in terms of complexity had been out of favor for many years—especially among anthropologists. Herein lies a story of interest. Berlin and Kay had no idea of the long tradition of investigating colour perception and naming, and of framing that sort of investigation in terms of evolutionary hypotheses. They are candid about this in an appendix to their book:

After our theory had been developed it became clear that a search of the literature for relevant evidence was essential. We recalled that some psychological testing had been carried out during the Torres Straits expedition led by A. C. Haddon at the turn of the century, and we consulted the reports of that expedition as part of our search for additional data. It was here, in the opening pages of W. H. R. Rivers' section entitled "Colour Vision" that we first became aware of the long history of the study of the development of color nomenclature. (1969, p. 134)

It is not that hard to explain why this research was unknown to the authors of Basic Color Terms. In the half century prior to the publication of their book anthropology had left evolutionary, comparative models of cultural study behind. The influence of Franz Boas in America had been profoundly "relativistic" and anti-evolutionary. In so far as anthropologists spoke of colour language and evolution it was to disparage the latter notion. V. Ray, in 1953, asserted that "each culture has taken the spectral continuum and divided it upon a basis which is quite arbitrary except for pragmatic considerations" (Ray 1953, p. 102). This was pretty much the party line, in the nineteen-sixties as well, and it is echoed in the short introduction to Basic Color Terms:

Ethnoscience studies, and studies of color vocabulary in particular, have firmly established that to understand the full range of meaning of a word in any language, each new language must be approached in its own terms, without a priori theories of semantic universals . . . . The essentially methodological point made in such studies has frequently been misinterpreted by anthropologists and linguists as an argument against the existence of semantic universals. The research reported here strongly indicates that semantic universals do exist in the domain of color vocabulary. Moreover, these universals appear to be related to the historical development of all languages in a way that can properly be termed evolutionary. (1969, p. 1)

In commenting on the relation of their work to that of their precursors Berlin and Kay claim a "rediscovery" of "ideas found in an earlier period" (1969 p. 134). This, they take it, is common in science. Yet their own introduction indicates a very different problematic than that of, to take an example, Rivers. They had to contend with the entrenched relativism of ethnoscience—which they pay homage to in the first sentence of their book. Indeed, the opposition for Berlin and Kay is relativism, an issue that was not pressing (if it existed at all) for earlier writers concerned with the application evolutionary notions to non-Western people and their cultures.

This book is an extended discussion and evaluation of a research tradition that, despite its historical antecedents, begins with Basic Color Terms. It is important to emphasize the word "tradition." Berlin and Kay have continued to write about colour language. Related work by other anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, vision scientists, and neuroscientists has enriched—or excoriated—the position originally stated in Basic Color Terms. The universalist tradition in colour naming research has, as a consequence, changed considerably over the last thirty years. To give the reader some idea of the scope of this research tradition: when Basic Color Terms returned to print in a 1991 paperback edition it included (as its only addition) an up-to-date bibliography that runs to 232 items.

Having marked Basic Color Terms as the contemporary locus classicus for universalist and evolutionary views about colour naming the reader may be surprised to find that Chapter I opens with a discussion of experimental work in cognitive psychology. Ironically, the psychologists Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg had, in the nineteen-fifties, taken colour naming to be an appropriate domain in which to defend a relativistic, "Whorfian" hypothesis about thought. Their influential "A Study in Language and Cognition" (1954) was taken to have established such a thesis as true. It was not until the early nineteen-seventies that another cognitive psychologist, Eleanor Rosch, demonstrated that the relativist view of colour naming that had been described by Brown and Lenneberg was unsupported. Together with the groundbreaking work of Berlin and Kay, Rosch's psychological experiments on colour prototypicality lay the groundwork for the universalist tradition.

In Part One—"The foundations of the universalist tradition in colour naming research"—I describe the initial work of Berlin and Kay, and of Rosch as well as the relations of their work to the psychophysics and the neurophysiology of colour. (For narrative reasons most criticism of this foundational work is discussed separately in the Appendix, "Criticism of Berlin and Kay, and Rosch.") I set out a persuasive if unsophisticated account of how the surprising claim that certain colour words are "universal" might plausibly be thought to be true. The text of Part One is more-or-less chronological and provides a much needed history of some of the key developments in the universalist tradition of colour naming research. I am not, however, a historian nor is it my intention to write a history. The first part of the book is roughly chronological because we are better able to understand universalist claims (and their strengths and their weaknesses) if we view them as grounded in a particular research strategy. Speaking roughly, but accurately, this strategy proposes to relate facts about naming in languages to facts about perception and, also, facts about the brain. Part One is a primer on colour naming research. It introduces essential studies, key concepts, and a general explanatory model. It is designed to bring us to the point where we can begin to think seriously about universalist claims.

In Part Two—"Colour naming: Constraints, cognition, and culture"—I consider developments in the universalist tradition that complicate the unsophisticated account developed in Part One. The point is to track the ways in which universalist claims have developed and changed—the ways in which, as Berlin and Kay might like to say, they have "evolved." I develop, in a general way, a psycho-semantics for colour names. I also provide an account of why a seemingly provincial debate about colour naming has generated a great deal of ongoing controversy (most recently as the subject of a highly critical target article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences—Saunders and van Brakel 1997).

Let me say a few words about these different projects—each of which is the subject of a chapter.

Berlin and Kay claimed two striking discoveries in their original work. (1) There is a limited number of "basic color terms"—as defined by stipulated criteria—in any language. In English, which possesses all eleven terms, the words are red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, black, white, and grey. (2) Speakers who share a basic term (within and across languages) are in agreement as to which colour samples are the best examples of their basic terms. Berlin and Kay called these best examples "focal colors." A further claim was advanced on the basis of term distribution. Languages were said to be ordered in an evolutionary sequence: a fixed vector of development, a set of seven "stages" that, the authors argued, any language would have to pass through as its colour vocabulary changed.

These claims were breath-taking in their generality. All the more so because they apply to the motley of human languages and cultures rather than the impersonal physical world of forces and particles. Karl Popper, who urged scientists to propose highly general "conjectures," would clearly have been impressed by the hypotheses on offer in Basic Color Terms. Thus it is hardly surprising to find, in the literature that is critical of universalist claims, the charge (also congenial to Popper the falsificationist) of refutation. While I disagree with such strong claims (see the Appendix) it is certainly true that Berlin and Kay’s original views were deeply problematical. It turns out that there are more basic colour terms than the eleven they propose; that there is no one basic colour term that is present in all languages; that focal colours—the supposedly shared "best examples"—are not as predictable as the original research suggested. On the other hand, there is a lot less variation in the number and the nature of basic colour terms than one might expect; a rather significant overlapping of basic colour terms, cross-culturally; a patterning of foci that seems remarkable even if it is merely "statistically significant" rather than universal. Nearly thirty years of research following in the wake of Basic Color Terms has not so much refuted that work’s claims as welcomed its central ideas into the real world of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural research. Chapter V tracks many—hopefully most—of the significant alterations to the universalist tradition and tries to draw some conclusions as to the nature of the perceptual-biological constraints on colour naming.

Aside from the difficulties mentioned, there is one particular problem that has puzzled me. Colour naming is a social activity, and the learning of colour words involves the mastery of a social practice. While this is obviously so, very little attention has been paid to the questions of what a speaker must know and do in order to have and use colour words like those discussed by Berlin and Kay. It is as if we set out to give, to speak philosophically, an extensional characterization of some semantic phenomenon—an account of term reference—while never realizing that the problems we continually encountered were due to the fact that an intensional account—one that concerns the knowledge of speakers—was needed. These philosophical notions sit uneasily with the literature to be discussed yet there is something right about the distinction they exemplify. So much attention paid to re-describing low-level properties of the vision system in terms of ever higher, ultimately full-blown linguistic practices (the former "determining" or "constraining" the latter). So little to the question of the abilities speakers need to possess if they are to use colour words correctly in a social context. Chapter VI develops a psycho-semantic theory for colour naming that is indebted to early work on the topic by the philosopher Bernard Harrison (1973).

This book begins with a discussion of colour and culture—Brown and Lenneberg’s relativistic claims from the 1950’s. I finish up in Chapter VII with the same topic. I am generally sympathetic to the universalist tradition in colour naming research but I do not believe that its claims are devastating to anthropological (and other) accounts of culture that stress culture’s holistic nature and its autonomy. I consider some of the reasons why, historically and conceptually, anthropologists and their fellow-travellers have been hostile to claims like those of Berlin and Kay. I suggest that there are reasons—not the least of which is an appreciation of the limited scope of legitimate colour naming generalizations—which leave room for both cultural specificity and for universality. On my own view the conceptualization or "cognition" of colour is essential in mediating between culture and our biologically determined sense-perceptual experience.