You now see colors that once didn’t exist

Though humans change, red remains a cultural constant.
Though humans change, red remains a cultural constant.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Munoz
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Industrialization changed the world’s palette, adding an array of synthetic hues to the universal, more natural, color scheme. This shifted human vision and experience, literally adding shades to how we see the world as cultures created more objects in ever more tones.

Still, there’s something universal that remains constant and common over peoples and time, it seems, in both simple and complex societies. We can see it in the similarities in the language of colors across tongues, according to cognitive scientist Edward Gibson of MIT.

Gibson recently led a team of researchers studying how humans communicate about colors to Bolivia’s Amazonian rainforest to meet the Tsimane, a hunter-gatherer tribe living a pre-industrialized life. In a paper published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pdf), they compare the color terms used in the Tsimane language those of Bolivian Spanish, English, and 110 other languages worldwide. The researchers discovered surprising similarities in all languages and found that industrialization caused color terms to proliferate.

The number of overall color terms in a given tongue varies drastically across languages, Gibson and his colleagues write. But all languages categorize colors generally the same way, into two groups: warm and cool tones. Similarly, across all tongues and cultures, words for warm shades—like red, pink, orange, yellow, and brown—were common, while those for cool tones, like blue and green, were more limited.

Proliferation of color terms.
Recognition of warm colors is common across cultures.
Image: Gibson et al.

Until now, scientists believed that the prevalence of warm color words across different languages was due to perceptual salience, or, put simply, because warm hues stand out. This study provides evidence for an alternative hypothesis: perhaps, the researchers posit, warm tones are more prevalent because they’re more useful.

Blues and greens are background colors, as in sky or grass, say, while objects tend to be in warmer colors, stand out in our lives, and more often require describing. The researchers believe that cultures more widely recognize and communicate about warm colors because those tones are more “universally useful.”

This is easy to imagine. Take a clay pot, an object used throughout human history. It would originally have been made simply and left in its original warm hue, the rich deep color of mud, perhaps maroon. Likewise, wooden tools were in warm reds and browns, and animal pelts were in shades of red, brown, yellow, and orange, all warm tones. Never in the history of ever has there been an electric-blue fox fur in the wild; but reddish coats abound.

Further, there’s wider recognition of warm colors than cool in languages across cultures, because of the “color statistics of the world,” the researchers argue. They write:

Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored…there simply are not that many natural blue objects, which may explain why many languages acquire the term “blue” relatively late (this left Homer scrambling to come up with an alternative description for the sea: “wine-dark” instead of “blue”).

The researchers say that communicative needs also dictate variations in the number of shades in different languages. Culture breeds colors, as does capitalism, it seems.

The more otherwise indistinguishable objects a culture has (read: products) the more likely it is to have lots of color terms, according to the research. Consider the relatively recent innovation of “rose gold” computers to distinguish devices just like those in white, black, or chrome, say. The researchers write, “Cultures vary in how useful color is. Industrialization, which creates objects distinguishable solely based on color, increases color usefulness.”