How Color Vocabularies Evolved Around the World

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The language of color doesn't always translate—literally. A bird that looks dark green to an observer raised in one part of the world may look black to someone who belongs to a different culture. This isn’t because our eyes work differently—it comes down to the way language impacts our perception.

English has 11 basic color categories, but this isn’t standard across all languages. Some have more. Japanese, for example, distinguishes light blue and dark blue as two distinct colors. Some have significantly less: People who speak Wobé identify all hues as either light, dark, or red. When and why some colors are designated with their own terms may seem random, but anthropologists have found that the evolution of color words follows a pattern around the world.

The smallest color vocabularies, like the one used in Wobé, always use the same three colors as their main umbrellas. Languages with a few more color words usually recognize blue, green, and yellow as separate shades. From there, secondary colors like purple and orange are added to the lexicon. For a deeper look at how languages evolve to describe color, check out the video from Vox below.