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.

The Thomasson: Useless, but meticulously maintained

All right, I’ll admit it. It’s intimidating to come back to my blog after a break of several months. (Why was I away? Grad school applications. Don’t ask, it was brutal.) One of the things that kept me going while I was away was weekly email updates about the statistics on my blog. “Neha! Two people favorited your blog this week!” “Neha! Seven people viewed and four people liked Stuff My Boyfriend Tells Me’s FaceBook page this week!” “Neha! Eleven people printed that comic of your boyfriend rocking to Daft Punk on their newborn babies’ onesies this week!” (Okay, that last one is made up. But only a little.)

Providing irrefutable proof that folks don’t know what to do with themselves in the lazy, food-filled days between Christmas and New Year, the last week of December showed unusually high activity on my blog. I immediately pointed out said blog activity to Boyfriend, and as per usual, Boyfriend nodded sagely (if “sagely” were inflected with a hint of “That’s impressive”). He was curious about why I still got updates on my blog when I wasn’t posting on it, and I said it was because I liked keeping tabs on it. “You know, to maintain it, keep track of what’s going on, etc.”

“That’s interesting. So even if you never posted on your blog again, there would still be maintenance on it?”


“So it could be a Thomasson of the blogosphere. I wonder how many of those exist…”

“A what-now of the blogosphere?”

“A Thomasson…”

(You know the drill by now. No need to ask. Just wait for it. 3…2…1…)

“Did you know, a Japanese artist coined the term “Thomasson” in the 1970s to describe architectural features of buildings that no longer serve any purpose but are maintained nonetheless?”

...Are you saying these stairs don't lead to that little door in the wall that takes you down to the basement where miniature people live in secret?

So… that hole in the wall isn’t a door used by the miniature family that secretly lives in the basement? This staircase with the freshly painted railing actually leads nowhere?

I have no desire to turn my blog into a Thomasson. But it is only fitting that my first post after the break should deal with the nomenclatural genesis of this eloquent term. And there isn’t much to it, really. In fact, you could even say that the entirety of this term’s history lies in just two observations:

A: (As some of you may know) Artists are often interested in architecture;

B: (As some of you may not know) Japan is very interested in baseball.

How do these things connect? Bear with me.

A: The year is 1972. Channeling the flâneur within him, Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa is wandering the streets of his city. As he walks past a building, his attention is arrested by a staircase. This staircase, to be precise:

Staircase to Nowhere

The staircase leads up to a landing and then down again on the other side. But there is no door there, a feature that immediately strikes Akasegawa as odd. “What a strange thing,” he thinks. “I have stumbled upon a Staircase to Nowhere.”* Assuming this structure-with-no-purpose is part of an older construction, Akasegawa is about to move on when he notices that the railing on the staircase has just been repaired. “Hmm,” he thinks again. “An architectural feature that is entirely useless, but still undergoes careful maintenance!” Akasegawa is fascinated, and from that point forward he seeks out architectural features like this one in other buildings as well: doors that are boarded up but freshly painted, water pipes that haven’t carried water in years but are still cleaned, or windows that hug brick walls but still have their glass replaced when broken. Anything that fits the bill of “useless but well-maintained.”

B: The year is 1980. After having played his last game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Major League Baseball player Gary Thomasson is bought by the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Nippon Pro Baseball. Having played for the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees before he was traded to the Dodgers, Thomasson is a bit of a star. And as these things tend to happen, the Yomiuri Giants give him a contract befitting a star. The heftiest contract, in fact, in the history of the Nippon League. People have grand expectations; Thomasson is eager to deliver. But something happens upon his arrival in Japan, something dramatically antithetical to the fairytale denouement everyone is expecting: Thomasson loses his mojo. Drops his baseball chops, entirely and spectacularly. Truth be told, if he hadn’t injured his knee in a career-ending move, he may have set a new strikeout record for the league.

But the contract remains, and the Yomiuri Giants are under legal obligation to pay him. For two years, the player strikes out but cashes in. For the Nippon League–and many baseball fans in Japan–Gary Thomasson came to define “useless but maintained.”

You see the connection now, don’t you?

I’m not sure if Akasegawa was a baseball fan, but he definitely kept tabs on the performance of various players in the Nippon League. And when it dawned on him at some point during his quest that these “useless-but-maintained” architectural features should be given a name, “Thomasson” seemed an obvious (if slightly mean spirited) choice. He started to photograph these Thomassons, compiling and publishing them in his 1985 book Hyperart: Thomasson. The term quickly gained a cult following, and the book was later translated into English.

Understandably, Gary Thomasson himself had no comment on the matter. But meanness aside, I think Akasegawa has given us a great gift here; a name for all those life situations we’ve never been able to define. That tailbone that serves no purpose but needs you to exercise the muscles around it because you once injured it in spin class? It’s a Thomasson! That sweater you have to wash in special detergent made from a baby penguin’s belly feathers, but that you don’t actually wear anywhere because it isn’t warm enough? It’s a Thomasson! That dog you adopted to bark at strangers when you moved into a sketchy neighborhood because of sketchy career choices like wanting to be a writer, but who just cannot control his excitement upon meeting new people? He’s a Thomasson! That cat who–well, any cat, really–is a Thomasson! Thomassons all round, everywhere you look.

There’s perverse beauty in the term, you have to admit. And the best part? It’s thoroughly useful, and needs no maintenance whatsoever.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

*I may be paraphrasing Akasegawa’s thoughts here. I’m a storyteller. I can’t help myself.


Do Animals Have Accents? (If I’m asking the question, you already know the answer.)

I have a list tucked away in a dark and hidden fold of my mind. It’s a list of places, phenomena, events, architecture, and accomplishments that, if I were to die without seeing or doing or fulfilling, I would be a very pissed pile of ashes lying in an urn somewhere. Of course, because I’m also a little superstitious with things I’m passionate about, I don’t like talking about the items on that list until I’ve crossed them off. (What? atheists can be superstitious too. Just don’t ask me to rationalize it.)

Recently, I crossed the following item off my list: to see whales in their natural habitat. You know, not on a whale watching cruise, or captive orcas and belugas in an aquatic park, but just whales hangin’ out, going about their business in their natural surroundings. It worked out because of two things: I live right by the Pacific Ocean, and every time someone visits me from out of town, I use showing them around as an excuse to trek to a certain lighthouse that juts out into the ocean on the northern coast of California, and is known for people having spotted a migratory whale or two, far in the distance.

This was my third trip to the lighthouse – I figured if I went often enough, I would get lucky at some point. And I would have been happy spotting just a whale or two in the distance, I really would. But what I saw was something else altogether. When we got there, I stood against the railing at the lighthouse as per usual, and focused so hard on the distance, hoping to spot some movement, that I may have missed what followed, if whales weren’t as big as they are. Right along the craggy coast – right under where we were standing – a dark, long cloud started to emerge from the depths of the water, and move closer to the surface. Then another. And another. And another, until there were adult gray baleen whales everywhere, in packs of about six, moving right at the surface and along the coast. And the calves – oh! The calves. Frisky, playful, curling above the surface, splashing each other with ocean foam until they were rounded off by the adults. It was a sight I’d only ever dreamed of.

We stood there for the good part of an hour, watching the whales. And when one of the calves cooed – or whistled or hooted, whatever it is that whales do – I all but climbed the railing and fell into the water. (Which would have been terrible, because I have the swimming prowess of a sandwich. And because, you know, whales.)

“Ooh, that whale calf cooed,” Boyfriend said excitedly, which surprised me, because he isn’t really a nature-ocean-wildlife kinda guy. Of course, the surprise didn’t last very long, because he immediately clarified the cause of his excitement.

“I wonder what its accent is like.”

“Its accent? What accent?”

“Did you know that whales are among the few mammals apart from humans, who have distinct accents depending on where they live? Dolphins do too, as do goats, and maybe even cows.”

You've got an accent? I've got a bad joke. (Image source.)

You’ve got an accent? I’ve got a bad joke. (Image source.)

Yeah. We mammals are cool like that. Hardly any of us can fly, and even those of us who manage to live underwater keep coming up for air. But oh! We have accents!

When whales communicate with one another, they use patterns of tongue clicks, which scientists call “codas.” Some of these patterns are unique, enabling whales to not only understand what another whale is saying, but also identify which whale, specifically, is speaking. (And I still have trouble recognizing my mother’s voice on the phone.) In 2011, researchers from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, found that the patterns of codas differ between communities of whales that belong to the same sub-species, but live in different regions. Every whale in the world has a unique five-click pattern – their version of a fingerprint – but that apart, whales who cruise in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, have a different “regional accent” from whales who chill in the Caribbean Sea. Furthermore, some whales, when held in captivity, even try to pick up human voices and accents. (Here’s an audio clip from The Telegraph that captures one such instance.)

Of course, if whales can have accents then dolphins – in fierce competition for the title of ‘Most Intelligent Animal’ since the beginning of time – can’t possibly be far behind. Researchers have found that dolphins living along the east and west coasts of Scotland have different accents. Their system of communication – or language, if you will – involves tail slaps, barks, whistles, groans, and clicks. And the patterns they use differ based on which side of Scotland they prefer. Then, of course, there are the dolphins of the Cardigan Bay, between Wales and Ireland, who communicate in an accent that is completely different from that of Scottish dolphins.

And then there are cows and goats.

In 2006 some farmers from Somerset, UK, who clearly had little else to do with their time, noticed that their cows mooed differently based on where they had been brought in from. Experts from the University of London were called in immediately, and confirmed that Somerset cows moo with a Somerset drawl, because apparently they pick up on the intonation of not just other cows, but people too. Goats, similarly, have distinct regional accents, and if a kid is transferred from one herd to another in a different region, it learns to switch its accent depending on which adult goat it is interacting with. (Not unlike my niece and nephew who normally speak in their natural, California-American accent, but switch seamlessly into an exaggerated Indian accent when mocking their parents.)

Here’s the thing, though: us mammals, we aren’t unique even in this respect. Songbirds too have been observed to chirp in different accents. And when it comes to regional exclusion and snobbery, they’re way ahead of us. Their accents, it turns out, differ mostly along lines of town and country. City dwelling birds have higher pitched voices that have evolved so they don’t echo off tall buildings. But I’m pretty sure this also makes the urban twits feel pretty superior to their, well, country cousins, who chirp along lower pitches.

Of course, no animal – no whale or dolphin or goat or bird – has a thing on a certain Patrick Stewart when it comes to accents. I present to you Sir Patrick Stewart, demonstrator par excellence of the variations in cow accents across the length and breadth of Britain. Trust me, you have to hear this.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.