colour terms

Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution

Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) (ISBN 1-57586-162-3) is a book by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. Berlin and Kay's work proposed that the kinds of color terms a culture has, such as black, brown or red, are predictable by the number of color terms the culture has.

There are seven levels in which cultures fall, with Stage I languages having only the colors black and white. Languages in Stage VII have eight or more basic color terms. This includes English, which has eleven basic color terms. The authors claim that as languages evolve, they develop color terms in a strict chronological sequence; if a color term was found in a language, then color terms from all previous stages would also be present. The sequence is as follows:

Stage I: Dark-cool and light-warm (this covers a larger set of colors than English "black" and "white".)
Stage II: Red
Stage III: Either green or yellow
Stage IV: Both green and yellow
Stage V: Blue
Stage VI: Brown
Stage VII: Purple, pink, orange or grey

Though the work has achieved widespread influence, it is not without its critics. Barbara Saunders has questioned the methodologies of data collection and the cultural assumptions underpinning the research.


Further reading

  • Saunders, Barbara and Brakel, J. van (Jaap) (2002) The Trajectory of Color, Perspectives on Science - Volume 10, Number 3, Fall 2002, pp. 302-355
  • Saunders, Barbara A. C. (1992) The Invention of Basic colour terms. Utrecht I.S.O.R.
  • Newcomer, Peter and Faris, James (1971) Basic Color Terms, International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1971), pp. 270-275
  • Kay, P. & McDaniel, K. (1978). The Linguistic Significance of the Meanings of Basic Color Terms. Language, 54 (3): 610-646.

External links

  • Revisiting Basic Color Terms, by Barbara Saunders. Paper presented to conference on ‘Anthropology and Psychology: The Legacy of the Torres Strait Expedition’, St. John’s College, Cambridge 10-12 August 1998.

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