What’s Black, White, and Blue All Over: The Hierarchy of Colors in Linguistic Evolution

In recent times Boyfriend and I, along with our board-game buddies, have taken a break from Settlers of Catan, and decided to give Puerto Rico a shot instead. Like any other well-designed strategy game Puerto Rico is a lot of fun, but it also makes me profoundly uncomfortable. As the name suggests, it is set in some fictional version of Puerto Rico,  and the path to victory includes establishing plantations of crops like sugar, indigo, or tobacco. You get to either sell the harvest in the (presumably) European market, or ship it off to (presumably) Europe.

The game doesn’t say so explicitly, but if you’ve ever attended a high school history class, you will find it hard to miss the fact that we’re dealing with colonialism here. Of course, if you still don’t understand why this game makes me uncomfortable, allow me to present yet another detail. The plantations that you acquire need workers, right? Well, the game provides you with these workers. They are called “colonists,” they mysteriously appear on a “colonist ship,” and the “Mayor” of Puerto Rico gets to distribute them among various players. Here’s what they look like:

puerto-rico-board-game-introYeah. Those dark brown pegs? They’re the “colonists.” Now do you understand why this award-winning game makes me uncomfortable?

Obviously, I couldn’t help addressing this issue for the entire duration of the game. It didn’t stop me from being competitive, of course, and when I came in second to Boyfriend, who had invested heavily in indigo plantations, I may have said a thing or two about how the pursuit of indigo had essentially destroyed the world, and how I hoped he was looking forward to having all his clothes dyed in blue. Boyfriend had already completed his victory dance and moved onto other things at this point, and when I threatened to dye his clothes blue mentioned blue dye, his mind raced to this place:

“Did you know that in most languages blue is one of the last colors to be named?”

I looked this up. Not only is blue the very last basic color to be given a name in most languages, but most languages also follow the same pattern when it comes to the order in which other basic colors are named. As far back as 1969, anthropologist Brent Berlin and linguist Paul Kay posited that if you could could determine what stage of evolution a particular language was in, you could draw accurate conclusions about how many colors had been named in this language, and which ones they were. All languages, they claimed, had terms for black (dark/cold) and white (light/warm), because these two categories were named in Stage 1. When a language progressed to Stage 2 it had a name for red, and if it was in Stages 3 or 4, it had names for yellow or green, or both. The naming of the color blue, however, was an act that took place only when a language had reached a significantly advanced stage. As happens in academia, Berlin and Kay’s work was challenged on several grounds in the following years. But as recently as 2012, a paper published in PNAS confirmed the order of naming colors that they had originally proposed. Most languages, it appears, name basic colors in the following order:

1. Black/white, 2: Red, 3: Violet, 4: Green/Yellow, and 5: Blue.

There is an obvious question here: Why is this the case? There exists an abundance of research to prove that neither cultures nor languages are homogenous. The overwhelming similarity in the order in which basic colors are named, however, suggests that there is a fundamental commonality in human experience that dates as far back as the beginning of language.

No one has been able to lay out with any certainly what this fundamental experiential commonality is, but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who published a study in 1858 on the work of Homer, was particularly bothered by the great writer’s use of the term “wine-colored” or “wine-like” to describe turbulent oceans, stubborn oxen, and everything that lay in between. To Gladstone, neither the ocean nor oxen were even close to “wine-colored.” He concluded, therefore, that the ancient Greeks hadn’t developed the ocular distinction between various colors, and that to them, the world appeared mostly black and white with some shades of red.

This theory was later debunked, and it became clear that the question needed to be addressed from a linguistic perspective, not an optical one. In his book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher briefly deals with the color-naming hierarchy, and suggests that languages are universally late in arriving at a word for blue because the color rarely appears in nature.

Naturally occuring

Occurs in nature. (Image source.)

NOT naturally occurring

DOES NOT occur in nature.

The hypothesis does hold a certain amount of weight. Black and white are as basic as shutting your eyes and then opening them, or being able to tell the difference between night and day. Red, similarly, occurs widely in nature, in flowers, berries, some types of soil, birds, beetles, even the sunrise. Red is also one of the easiest dyes to make naturally, while blue is among the most difficult. Furthermore, as some people have proposed, red is a color that would have been familiar to human beings since the very beginning because it is the color of blood. Early humans didn’t eat meat, but between injuries in the wild, menstruation, and childbirth, they probably bled quite a bit themselves. Going further down the naming hierarchy, yellow is common to flowers, fruits, and animals, while even a little scrap of shrubbery would introduce you to green. Blue, however, is found only on rare insects, rare flowers, rare birds and reptiles, and a handful of berries.

Oh, and the sky. Yes, the sky appears blue. But that’s only some of the time, isn’t it? The sky also appears purple and magenta and orange and grey. And each of these colors was among the very last to be named, following after blue. Clearly, early humans weren’t big on staring into the sky. Or maybe they were just rabidly utilitarian: if the sky didn’t interfere with their daily lives, they didn’t feel the need to address it.

There are no certain answers on the subject. Each theory has holes in it. For instance, the ground is brown for most part, as are tree trunks, and the skin on a lot of early humans. So why didn’t the name for this color appear before red? We’ll probably never know. What we can draw conclusions about, though, is the connection between this linguistic phenomenon and the spread of European colonialism. (I know. I can’t help myself: a decade of Postcolonial Studies will do that to you. But bear with me.) Scholars like Deutscher have proposed that one of the reasons blue was among the last colors to be named is because blue dyes were very difficult to make. Now, the latter part of this claim is known to be true. Because blue was a very difficult dye to make, the color acquired luxury status across the ancient and medieval world. It became the color of royalty and of the upper classes. The ancient Egyptians dyed the cloth they used to mummify bodies blue, and Julius Caesar claimed that Celtic warriors painted their bodies blue. Because of the status this color enjoyed, indigo, when discovered, became something of a goldmine for European traders. It became a business that set the foundations for one of history’s biggest colonial empires.

I know, there’s no causation here. But I didn’t promise a relationship of causality, I just promised a connection. And the connection is undeniable, don’t you think? Just like the beauty of a blue planet seen from far, far away.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.



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