05 July 2020

Are Colors Universal?

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re there universals ideas about colors? This is one question that has intrigued psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists for decades. Are there fundamental categories of color that every society recognizes? Do cultures around the world perceive color the same way?

As it turns out, cultures around the world talk do about color differently. When you think about it, it makes sense: while the rainbow exists everywhere, there are no actual boundaries or sharp borders between individual colors that we might call red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and so on. Therefore, it seems quite reasonable that people might visually pick up different hues. However, we could take this a step further: a language might not bother to label a color with a specific unique term. Thus, there is “no reason to think that orange is any more or less a legitimate color than, say, cyan, or that one culture’s list of colors is more ‘real’ than another’s.”.


waterfall, Are Colors Universal?

Source: picture of waterfall by StockSnap at pixabay.com

Nonetheless, the World Color Survey (2009) concluded that every culture has basic color words for at least part of the rainbow. It builds upon decades of study of color names and categories collected from around the world, finding an almost universal pattern in which colors received names in each language.


But the debate remains open, as part of an ongoing war among linguists and color researchers. “Universalists,” including the authors of The World Color Survey, argue that all human societies perceive and label colors in more or less patterned way. “Relativists,” on the other hand, argue that there is a wide spectrum of color perception and that these are described in a variety of unique ways in particular languages.


In fact, some societies don’t even have a word for the concept of color. One Amazonian tribe in Peru reportedly has no word for the concept of color in their language, nor terms for specific colors, reports anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés. He stands in the middle of this debate, arguing there are indeed some universals in perception among all societies, but that color terms don’t appear to be one of them. For instance, while the Candoshi language has a way to indicate “yellow” (ptsiyaro), this is actually the term for a specific yellow bird; the concept of “red” (chobiapi) actually refers to ripe fruit. Although this doesn’t necessary mean they are not colors (think of the English word “orange,” which also has another meaning as a fruit), it is not clear that this culture divides up the world using color terms at all.


Part of the consideration here is how useful it is in daily life. Ultimately, colors are abstractions, and different terms to designate specific colors may not be particularly necessary in all situations. Depending on the task you perform, it may not be necessary to differentiate between turquoise and cerulean blue. However, for most contemporary and especially digital design projects, color specificity is generally of utmost importance.