The surprising pattern behind color names around the world
The surprising pattern behind color names around the world

If I showed you this paint chip and asked
you to tell me what color it is, what would you say? How about this one? And this one? You probably said blue, purple, and brown
— but if your native language is Wobé from Côte d’Ivoire, you probably would have
used one word for all three. That’s because not all languages have the
same number of basic color categories. In English, we have 11. Russian has 12, but some languages, like Wobé,
only have 3. And researchers have found that if a language
only has 3 or 4 basic colors, they can usually predict what those will be. So how do they do it? As you would expect, different languages have
different words for colors. But what interests researchers isn’t those
simple translations, it’s the question of which colors get names at all. Because as much as we think of colors in categories,
the truth is that color is a spectrum. It’s not obvious why we should have a basic
color term for this color, but not this one. And until the 1960s it was widely believed
by anthropologists that cultures would just chose from the spectrum randomly. But In 1969, two Berkeley researchers, Paul
Kay and Brent Berlin, published a book challenging that assumption. They had asked 20 people who spoke different
languages to look at these 330 color chips and categorize each of them by their basic
color term. And they found hints of a universal pattern:
If a language had six basic color words, they were always for black (or dark), white (or
light), red, green, yellow, and blue. If it had four terms, they were for black,
white, red, and then either green or yellow. If it had only three, they were always for
black, white, and red. It suggested that as languages develop, they
create color names in a certain order. First black and white, then red, then green
and yellow, then blue, then others like brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. The theory was revolutionary. [music change] They weren’t the first researchers interested
in the question of how we name colors. In 1858, William Gladstone — who would later
become a four-term British Prime Minister — published a book on the ancient Greek
works of Homer. He was struck by the fact that there weren’t
many colors at all in the text, and when there were, Homer would use the same word for “colours
which, according to us, are essentially different.” He used the same word for purple
to describe blood, a dark cloud, a wave, and a rainbow, and he referred to the sea as wine-looking. Gladstone didn’t find any references to
blue or orange at all. Some researchers took this and other ancient
writings to wrongly speculate that earlier societies were colorblind. Later in the 19th century, an anthropologist
named W.H.R. Rivers went on an expedition to Papua New
Guinea, where he found that some tribes only had words for red, white and black, while
others had additional words for blue and green. “An expedition to investigate the cultures on a remote group of islands in the Torres Straits between Australia and New Guinea. His brief was to investigate the mental characteristics of the islanders. He claimed that the number of color terms
in a population was related to their “intellectual and cultural development”. And used his findings to claim that Papuans
were less physically evolved than Europeans. Berlin and Kay didn’t make those racist
claims, but their color hierarchy attracted a lot of criticism. For one thing, critics pointed out that the
study used a small sample size — 20 people, all of whom were bilingual English speakers,
not monolingual native speakers. And almost all the languages were from industrialized
societies — hardly the best portrait of the entire world. But it also had to do with defining what a
“basic color term” is. In the Yele language in Papua New Guinea,
for example, there are only basic color terms for black, white, and red. But there’s a broad vocabulary of everyday
objects — like the sky, ashes, and tree sap — that are used as color comparisons
that cover almost all English color words. There are also languages like Hanunó’o
from the Phillippines, where a word can communicate both color and physical feeling. They have four basic terms to describe color
— but they’re on a spectrum of light vs. dark, strength vs. weakness, and wetness vs.
dryness. Those kinds of languages don’t fit neatly
into a color chip identification test. But by the late 1970s, Berlin and Kay had
a response for the critics. They called it the World Color Survey. They conducted the same labeling test on over
2,600 native speakers of 110 unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies. They found that with some tweaks, the color
hierarchy still checked out. Eighty-three percent of the languages fit
into the hierarchy. And when they averaged the centerpoint of
where each speaker labeled each of their language’s colors, they wound up with a sort of heat
map. Those clusters matched pretty closely to the
English speakers’ averages, which are labeled here. Here’s how Paul Kay puts it:
“It just turns out that most languages make cuts in the same place. Some languages make fewer cuts than others.” So these color stages are widespread throughout
the world… but why? Why would a word for red come before a word
for blue? Some have speculated that the stages correspond
to the salience of the color in the natural environment. Red is in blood and in dirt. Blue, on the other hand, was fairly scarce before manufacturing. Recently cognitive science researchers have
explored this question by running computer simulations of how language evolves through
conversations between people. The simulations presented artificial agents
with multiple colors at a time, and, through a series of simple negotiations, those agents
developed shared labels for the different colors. And the order in which those labels emerged? First, reddish tones, then green and yellow,
then blue, then orange. It matched the original stages pretty closely. And it suggests that there’s something about
the colors themselves that leads to this hierarchy. Red is fundamentally more distinct than the
other colors. So what does all this mean? Why does it matter? Well, it tells us that despite our many differences
across cultures and societies … there is something universal about how humans try to
make sense of the world.

100 thoughts on “The surprising pattern behind color names around the world”

  1. Марк Горелов says:

    Залайкайте коммент,чтоб буржуи думали что тут что то важное

  2. Алексей Гамов says:

    In russian we have collor between yellow and green. We call it salaroviy.

  3. Sportsquirrel says:

    So we learn that humans all over the world are basically just people.

  4. BunniKat says:

    i still don't understand why isn't a word for Celeste in english more than LigHt BluE… cyan its just more the green side..

  5. ArchNiki says:

    I did ubderstand НИХУЯ but very interesting

  6. Тимур Колобанов says:

    Синий, голубой = blue.

  7. stvp68 says:

    I like that the pic of the two researchers is of them making music

  8. Ylemonjo J says:

    That's fascinating

  9. Double Den says:

    Why didn't they researched Hindi words for color,
    Mistery would have been solved within a blink 😅

  10. Danny E says:


  11. Its my life and i'll do what I want says:

    yeh uh your Maori name for blue is wrong

  12. Dixor Secret says:

    Нихуя не понял, но очень интересно

  13. Sillius Soddus says:

    Homer was blind.

  14. willbeplayin says:



    White are

    All I see

    In my infancy

    Red and yellow then came to be

    Reaching out to me

    Lets me see"
    – Tool – Lateralus

  15. Zarrougui Lucas says:

    Blue was scarce ? What about the sky ?

  16. jiangshi judd says:

    English: 11 names
    Wobe: 3 names

  17. bats says:

    Please tell me where the satan in an office came from

  18. NotTonTon says:

    Don't scientists know reality was black and white in the old days?

  19. Zorutan says:

    6:16 That ain't hungary in the background at all

  20. Ari says:

    humans : create names for colors
    also humans : y did we create these names for these colors

  21. Salma Qonitah says:

    I would like to point out the language distribution map part of Indonesian language. It shouldn't be "bahasa" alone. Bahasa means language in Indonesian, therefore it's better to state Indonesian than bahasa alone. 😀

  22. Giacomo Carnevale says:

    This video is so well made that I find myself watching it again from time to time

  23. Elst Pizarro says:

    You are wrong. In Russia we call purple "Fioletoviy". "Purpurniy" is just one of the shades of purple. Even the group of shades, to be sure, which is somewhere between pink and purple, if I'm right.
    And in English, you have Cyan, which is "Biriyzoviy" in Russian. There are much more shades than these 11 that you named. Indigo, cyan, etc.

  24. Ben Abele says:

    Tool wrote about this phenomenon in Lateralus

  25. GOLFPLAAT says:

    In dutch we have no word for cyan, we call it "appel blauw zee groen" which translates into "apple blue sea green"

  26. Đinh Đức Nhân says:

    0:43 Vietnamese shoutout.

  27. Joelle Tétreault says:

    It was "gris" not "vert" in french at the beginning

  28. rionka says:

    1:44 this is fascinating, thanks!!

  29. Evropa Nazione says:

    Just because you call it racist, does not mean that it is not factual.

  30. Leo Kastenberg says:

    Homer did not say that the sea was the same color as wine. A more literal translation is "wine-dark", as in "it's dark as [red] wine". People know what color the sea is, but what is variable is how dark it is.

  31. Lloyd A. says:

    I still don’t understand why blue isn’t one of the first colors. Yes, I get that blue is rare in nature, but isn’t the sky a shade of blue? I get that it changes color a lot, but it’s not like it’s not primarily blue

  32. protercool says:

    white are
    All I see
    In my infancy
    Red and yellow then came to be

  33. jorge6207 says:


  34. Sophie Meijborg says:

    there’s a language calles pirahã that doesnt have any colours at all

  35. Naief Alromi says:

    In arabic there's like a color for every color palette but people who use weird colors like "lahmy" (slightly dark red) are often seen as pretentious and annoying


    I feel so proud , Indian languages have so many colors described , there are more than 5 words for just white , there are words to differentiate even orange and saffron

  37. Yuri Morroni says:

    I never get tired of this video! Sometimes I come here to check an info, and end up watching the whole thing!

    I love you, Vox!

  38. Jonathan Jesalva says:

    Well that’s nice but I’m color blind

  39. Tommy Hilllz says:

    Wow blue was scarce back then? That came out right out of the Kpe

  40. Mag says:

    Cafeniu,cenusiu,vinat,portocaliu. Coffey like,ash like,egg plant like,orange like in Romanian.

  41. kikuass says:

    I have had a good grade at my philosophy exam thanks to you and this video !
    Kisses from france and keep up the good work

  42. Fide Fidel says:

    Swahili is from Tanzania not Kenya
    Brown is called Udongo (means mud)

  43. matias smith says:

    i just realized that in bisaya, the second most used dialect in the philippines, we only have three words for colors: púti (white), ítom (black), and púwa or púla (red). idk if there are other names for colors but some like asul (from spanish, azul) could be used to describe blue but it is very uncommon to use such word rather we just plainly use the word blue

  44. Foxy Chanel says:

    the sky is blue lol

  45. KonstantinGeist says:

    Another mystery is that Finnish and Russian have same word for "blue" despite being totally unrelated languages (sini vs. sininen)

  46. YOUNG DUMB says:

    Tagalog :Dalandan, dilaw, itim at puti

  47. RUStalker33 says:

    Я нихера не понял

  48. Sophia Lowy says:

    1:59 nice

  49. AlexLun says:

    I think we just simply name colours based on objects or concepts. Yellow for example comes from old English geolou, which is related to gold.

  50. *EAGLE* a c e says:

    Here are the colors in my language: Nepali

    Red – रातो (Raatoh)
    Blue – निलो (Neeloh)
    Yellow – पहेंलो (Paahayloh)
    Green – हरियो (Haareeyoh)
    Black – कालो (Kaloh)
    White – सेतो (Saytoh)
    Brown – खैरो (khairoh)
    Pink – गुलाबि (Gulabi); meaning rose
    Grey – खरानी (Kharaanee); meaning ash
    Purple – कलेजी (Caalaygee); meaning liver-y

  51. cara barbara butera says:

    The accidental click was worth it

  52. OOF says:

    Y’all I am so confused

  53. Jew Macintosh says:

    white are
    all I see
    in my infancy
    Red and yellow then came to be reaching out to me
    Let’s me see

  54. sean hantz says:

    Jack Black, Barry White, and Red Skelton all approved this video

  55. mariam buturishvili says:

    In georgia we say:
    Brown_color of coffee
    Orange_color of carrots
    Light blue_color of sky
    Pink_color of rose
    Grey_color of ash
    Purple_color of lilac

  56. Boglárka Kasza says:

    My native language is Hungarian. I will talk about a confusion in the language.
    I got so angry when I was a child. So we sometimes call orange as "orange-yellow" and yellow as "lemon-yellow" like there is the big group "yellow" which can mean orange and the real yellow. So, we were at art class in elementary school and I asked someone to let me use her yellow pen and she asked me "lemon-yellow or orange-yellow?" and I was so angry, like, if I say "yellow" it is "lemon-yellow", if I say "orange" it is "orange-yellow". I did not understand why would one call orange-yellow simply as yellow!?!?!???? I still don't understand. As yellow itself is the color of the lemon, but orange-yellow or orange is the color of the orange. Why do you call the orange color as "yellow" as I always think it is the lemon color. If you want to talk about the orange color then you'd say ORANGE along with yellow. 🙁
    So this is weird in the Hungarian language. What is also weird TO ME that I call magenta color as cyclamen, and some people call it crimson (and some call the purple as crimson), so more word exists for the colors, and I am easily confused as by what people actually mean. :O
    There was also a quarrel about it. xD On a game we were playing dress-up and we set up different rules, once I was in charge of rule making and I made the rule to only wear pink. Someone came with pinkish-purple shoes, and only I said that it was purple, and others said it is pink, and the child-me was offended by this, because the "pink-defenders" were rude towards me because of my different opinion~.~ The color was more of a purple color, leaning towards pink, but still in the purple category in my views. :/

  57. Akkusativ Singular says:


  58. NAMKPO says:

    solly but that's incorrect for example the himbapeople have no color perseption like we do and f.e old greek had no blue so…

  59. Smith Js says:

    One of the most interesting subjects! Love it thanks for this.

  60. Chihiro Kensei says:

    Hi you don't have a source for the ending outtro. can i have the name of it? it's quite different from the whimsical classical heard throughout the video.

  61. Orian de Wit says:

    "English has 11 color categories" — I think this also depends on culture/region/upbringing. For some people, colors such as cyan, magenta, violet, indigo, lime, taupe, teal etc are not just variants of the 11 mentioned, they are separate colors. I've always thought of at least cyan & magenta as separate color classes, and always became a bit annoyed when others called them shades of blue/pink.

  62. lonely smiley says:

    I'm Cameroonian, and in my native language we also have just three words to describe colour:
    Sô: Describes 'black' and any other dark colours
    Fefe: Describes 'white' and closely related colours like grey, beige…
    Pê: Describe 'red' and other bright colours like yellow and orange.
    And not all colours have names….

  63. Wayward Sister says:

    Roses are red
    Violets are blue
    Or are they ?

  64. Kaelan Sulja says:

    Why am i watching this im colorblind

  65. like like says:

    In Arabic we got all kind of names for every color you can think of.
    That's why it's so hard to learn

  66. Artsy Cousins says:


  67. caitzs says:

    At 1 year of age, my kids learned about which fruits they could eat from the garden. They had no problem distinguishing ripe red tomatoes and raspberries vs unripe yellow/green ones, but they had a very hard time accepting that there were ripe yellow varieties of tomatoes and raspberries. It took both of them until about 4-5 years of age to try a yellow tomato. They were convinced it was unripe, regardless of what I said. Being able to communicate red/purple, the color of many ripe fruits, vs yellow/green, the color of unripe fruit, is very important when a group must harvest their own food.

    Blue is all around us in sky and water, but the blueness isn't important to distinguish for daily existence. My kids really didn't care if the sky was blue or gray or white. They just cared about it being light (day) or dark (night). Also, whether water is good to drink is not dependent on its blueness. It's more about whether it's light/clear (good to drink) or dark/murky (bad to drink).

  68. Rivista Vlogs says:

    William glastones library is next door to me in in Wales😱

  69. uomopera says:

    Discovering that someone somewhere is using 3 names for all colors disturbed me more than it should have… What's wrong with you people?!

  70. Anuraag Barlapudi says:

    Vox explainer videos should be played across all theaters!!

  71. K K says:

    From what I understand by reading the comments is that most languages use objects to name colours. Same in french : orange like the fruit, marron like the dry fruit, rose like the flower etc. This influence the grammar too. Exemple : les lunettes orange without s (plural) because orange is a fruit.

  72. Aayize Diaz says:

    wait how is blue fairly scarce??? its literally the sky and ocean..

  73. Barello Smith says:

    White are
    All I see
    In my infancy
    Red and yellow then came to be
    Reaching out to me
    Lets me see

  74. Cyprian says:

    3:39 Point of correction, the language is Kiswahili not Swahili. Swahili refers to the person speaking the language.

  75. puru Sharma says:

    ..but PURU is my name..

  76. Mr. H says:

    Only wow! Astonishing

  77. Just right says:

    On the 1st day He separated light from the dark. On the 6th day He made Adam= red.

  78. youtube youtube says:

    Art teacher : BlaCk aND whiTE are nOT colOurs TheyrE shAdeS..
    Me: oh reallllly now

  79. Daniel Koval says:

    Homer was probably living in Morioh-Cho

  80. cartoon theories says:

    arabic have all colors

  81. Flight 32X says:

    RIP Me, I'm colourblind

  82. LE HOLE says:

    in malay brown literally means chocolate

  83. Design Escobar says:

    me: hi so i'm just curious why colors–

    Vox: say no more.

  84. Mubtasim Nabil says:

    Think about a color blind person watching this video

  85. GamersOdyssey says:

    Πορφυρο in Greek is the dark red color, not purple, purple's name is Μωβ

  86. chris sondrita says:


  87. toomanybees says:

    first few seconds of video play
    me: pauses ok i got this…. dark teal, dark violet, andddd reddish grey-brown
    video: you probably said blue, purple and brown
    me: :<

  88. The Deep Lagoon says:

    am I wrong i jiust clicked cause i didnt understand the title lol

  89. Oscar MacNeill says:

    Me: 'art student who has spent years learning colours and colour theory" WELP "throws out paint"

  90. Fiona Lai says:

    To all the meme haters, I reckon Vox forgot to mention that not everyone back then had the chance to see an ocean and perhaps their skies were greyish clouded or dark… and water was always seen as clear/transparent no colour… so… makes sense why the colour blue appeared after the industrial revolution

  91. Jenny Pai says:

    i don't agree with the mandarin part. just with the basic color categories, mandarin has more words. then one can expand on them like in english by adding the modifiers light or dark, or have ones like "reddish-orange" or "bluish-green".

  92. Samm says:

    i even thought pantone was vibrant dark orange

  93. Sean Peckham says:

    The ending comment about it being universal sounds like it got carried away; just a bit earlier wasn't it only 80-something percent of the languages in that study that follow the pattern?

  94. scronx says:

    You know, I'm sick of people throwing the "racist" smear everywhere they possibly can. It's not a sin to consider one group of people less evolved than another, it's called the history of science. This was an enjoyable presentation until you jarringly declared your religion of political correctness.

  95. Miguel Galang says:

    Ah yes, white people, where something as innocent as a study on color is used to label people of color as behind in evolution.

  96. ibsio says:

    Red is very distinct and green is much more common than blue. Took way too long to explain something very simple.

  97. Sniper 2000 says:

    So basically if you speak wobé you become colour blind.

  98. CoolCreeper39 says:

    5:22 are you forgetting the literal sky

  99. Mr. Eighty says:

    80s colors combination were the best!

  100. Just Me says:

    How would it be racist?

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