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Color me intrigued

After seeing a whole range of fireworks all across the area north and east of Seattle on the Fourth of July, all from the deck of the place where we're staying, I was inspired to look up some color terms. I was surprised and intrigued by the results.

The first question was which color terms to look up. Of course, there's good old ROY G BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), and I did see a rainbow yesterday. But, I decided to look up basic color terms for English. Basic color terms are single words that are very common and refer to a single color. Of ROYGBIV, indigo and violet are not considered common enough to be basic, but purple is.

So why isn't it ROYGBP? Well, indigo and violet correspond to pure light, specific parts of the light spectrum, while purple is a mixture of red and blue, and ROYGBIV is used to describe the parts of the spectrum (as in the rainbow).

But to quote my favorite ex-blogger, I digress. In addition to ROYGBP, the other basic color terms in English are black, white, gray/grey, brown, and pink. So I did a search on Google ngrams for the English basic color terms, and this is what I got.

One thing to notice is the sharp increase of black in the 1960s. This is likely due to the increased use of Black as a racial category. Interestingly, if we look just at British English, we don't see a sharp increase, but a more gradual one.

American English does show the sharp increase, just like all of English. Hmm...

The fact that the sharp increase shows up for all of English and American English but not British English strongly suggests that the corpus used for Google Ngrams has a high proportion of American texts. That was actually the point of an exam question I gave my students in Germany several years ago, but using different words.

But getting back to the colors, one reason that I've kept saying English basic color terms, is that languages vary in their selection of basic color terms. For example, Italian has two basic color terms encompassing "blue": blu ("blue") and azzurro ("azure"). The national sports teams are called the "Azzurri" for their color, but one of the Verona soccer teams is the "Giallo-Blu" (Yellow-Blue).

Not only do languages have different basic color terms, but which ones they have change over time. One common change is to take a word that describes a particular kind of object that has a distinctive color and start using that word to describe other things with similar colors. It turns out the orange is such a word in English — it was first used for the fruit and only later used for the color. I sort of knew that, but what I didn't know that orange only became a basic color term in the 20th century. Before that, a painter might refer to "yellow-red" (since orange paint can be made from yellow and red). I also knew that indigo comes from the dye, and I was suspicious of violet (yes, it comes from the flower). But I didn't know about purple (another dye) or pink (another flower). All the things you can learn from a short section of a Wikipedia article!

There's a whole line of ongoing, fascinating research in this area of basic color terms started by famous work by Berlin and Kay. However, one important aspect of their work is arguing that there are patterns to the changes over time. In particular, they argue that the general order of becoming a basic color term is as follows (based on this Wikipedia article).

  1. Roughly dark ('black') and light ('white')
  2. Red
  3. Either green or yellow
  4. Both green and yellow
  5. Blue
  6. Brown
  7. Purple, pink, orange, or gray

Now go back to that first ngram chart. If we look at the earliest date (1800) and look at the ranks of the colors, we get:

  1. white
  2. black
  3. red
  4. green
  5. yellow
  6. blue
  7. gray/grey
  8. brown
  9. [the others]

With the exception of brown, the frequency of the words matches the order of becoming a basic color term. Pretty cool! By 2000, blue has jumped up ahead of green and yellow, and yellow has also dropped a bit. I would guess that these changes are due to non-color uses of blue (like "sad"") and green (like "environmentally friendly"), but that's just a guess.

Color me intrigued, indeed!