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.


Real Men Wore Pink. (Whatever “Real Men” Are.)

Halloween is drawing nigh, and in a bid to beat the end-of-the-month shopping traffic, my sister and I went looking for costumes for my niece and nephew last week. My nephew is very easy to please – the love of his life shifts every year from one mode of transportation to the next, so if last year he was a steam engine operator, this year he wants to be a pilot. My niece, on the other hand, poses a greater challenge. She wants to be a witch this year – which is fantastic – but she wants some very specific elements in her costume, like a purple cape and an orange hat and a ginger tabby stretching leisurely over a broom. (In her ideal world the tabby would be real.) So what’s the big deal, I thought. I’m sure there are a bunch of things to choose from in the girls’ section; I’m sure with a some imagination, and maybe a tiny bit of help from the fabric store for the cape, we’ll be able to put together a mean little witch costume. The problem, as we realized upon actually going to the girls’ costume section, was that the “section” was essentially a wall full of poofy, pink, princess dresses. It was like a cotton candy machine threw up all over the wall. Obviously, we left the store empty-handed, and because neither my sister nor I are fans of the color, also a little nauseated from having stared at all that pink.

I can't. I just... No.

I can’t. I just… No. (Image source.)

I came home and complained to Boyfriend about the frustrations of the expedition, and he listened dutifully to my rant, even though he was probably only marginally interested. Then, just as I was about to deliver my line about how a cotton candy machine threw up all over the wall – it was going to be my coup de grace – Boyfriend interrupted me mid-sentence with this:

“Did you know that up until the 1970s, and maybe even later, department stores marketed blue as a feminine color and pink as a masculine color?”

You're welcome.

You’re welcome.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the convention of dressing children in specific colors (or clothing styles) based on their gender hadn’t yet come about – most kids were just put in white dresses until they were five or six years old, because white cloth could be bleached and dresses probably facilitated quick nappy changes. The association of colors with masculinity and femininity started in the nineteenth century, when maps produced by the English speaking world depicted Britain and the farthest reaches of its empire in pink. The original intention was to mark Britain and its territories red on the map, but this obscured the black lettering printed over it. So Britain went with pink instead, which worked out all right because it was also the color of the Tudor rose, the symbol of much of England’s history. This may only have been one among a large number of factors that shaped the trend, but in large parts of the world pink soon became associated with ideas of strength, power, and masculinity. And by the same impeccable logic blue, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum, was assigned to women, because it was soothing enough for their frail souls, and gentle enough for their delicate sensibilities. As the Earnshaw Infant’s Department wrote in 1918, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty is prettier for the girl.”

This trend continued for longer than you would have imagined. In 1927 Time magazine ran an article on babies’ fashions, providing a list of all the major clothing retailers in the US, along with each one of their opinions on whether pink was for boys and blue for girls, or the other way around. It’s clear that some confusion over the matter had emerged by now, because four of the ten stores listed (Macy’s, Franklin Simon, Wanamaker’s, and Bullock’s) thought pink was for girls. But the rest of them (Filene’s, Best’s, Halle’s, Marshall Field’s, Maison Blanche, and The White House) remained adamant that pink was meant for boys, and blue for girls. Historian Jo B. Paoletti, who traces the evolution of children’s fashion and the association of color and gender in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, claims it was around the 1940s when clothing companies decided to flip their stance for good, and started selling pink frocks for girls and blue overalls for boys. The trend went through several hiccups on the way, of course – in the 1970s, owing to the rise of feminism, gender neutral clothing became the norm for almost a decade. But pink came back in a big way for girls and women in the mid-1980s, and has since become a color associated with femininity and prettiness.

You might think it’s obvious to anyone who isn’t a five-year-old raised on a rigid diet of Disney movies and Barbie dolls, that the assignment of the colors pink and blue to girls and boys respectively is no more than an elaborately played out marketing strategy to get people to buy more stuff. Unfortunately, you would be wrong in thinking that. In 2007 evolutionary psychologists Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling wrote and article based on stringent research (oh, what a moment for air quotes) on people’s color preferences. According to them women across cultures overwhelmingly identified pink more favorably. Following from this observation – and in typical evolutionary psychology fashion – Hurlbert and Ling then made the mother of all logical leaps and decided that instead of recent decades of indoctrination by fashion and media giants, this bias was actually caused by biological determinants. Women are evolutionarily tuned into pink because about ten thousand years ago they used to gather berries. Which, as we all know, are pink.

No, for real.

Apparently if you’re a woman, your bile juices start splashing about in a mini-tsunami in your gut the moment you see something pink, therefore sending an instant signal to your brain that you absolutely must get that horrid, frilly, candy-colored skirt. Because, you know, survival of the species, and such.

Oh, my. How wonderfully neanderthal.

Oh, my. How radically neanderthal.

In its defense, though, at least evolutionary psychology is an entertaining field of study. I mean, imagine the possibilities. Ten thousand years ago men used to hunt dangerous animals with spears, an act that clearly required what can euphemistically be called a testosterone party. So I’m sure manly men get totally turned on at the sight of a dangerous animal. Oh, and ten thousand years ago people probably didn’t do much for old or ill or disabled people, because they didn’t have the ability to contribute to the survival of the community. That’s why today, as a society, we think it’s okay to suggest that we shouldn’t provide old age benefits and universal healthcare. Also, ten thousand years ago people didn’t really live beyond thirty, which is why even though my life has had textbook execution so far, I don’t really have a plan for the next six decades of it. You know, because my brain just isn’t hardwired to think about those things. And because I’m too busy seeking out pink colored berries anyway.

Fortunately for humanity, kids like Beckett, who appeared in the following advertisement with his mother Jenna Lyons, exist.

For shame! For shame!

For shame! For shame!

Obviously, upon seeing this ad conservative pundits got their collective lacy, pink panties in a bunch over how Lyons was basically fucking her kid up for life. And as always, Jon Stewart has this brilliant summary. (Of course, what does Jon Stewart know, right? Does he know, for instance, that Jenna Lyons has a girlfriend? Oh, the horror, the horror!)

Want to know more? Go here. And here.