That Which We Call a Rose

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Science  11 Dec 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5959, pp. 1460
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5959.1460-a

The green/blue/purple motif for a Gunu speaker

CREDIT: D. T. LINDSEY AND A. M. BROWN, PROC. NATL. ACAD. SCI. U.S.A. 106, 19785 (2009)

There is great diversity in how colors are represented among the languages of the world, but there are common categories into which colors tend to be grouped. Lindsey and Brown have explored how those categories are pieced together into naming systems and how those systems vary both across and within languages. They analyzed data from the World Color Survey; over 2000 individuals, representing over 100 mostly unwritten languages from nonindustrialized societies, provided names for the Munsell set of 330 color samples. Following on earlier work, they looked for categories into which each individual grouped similar colors and identified 11 clusters into which color space can be divided, regardless of language. But in spite of this universal glossary of basic color terms, the ways in which these clusters mapped onto color space—their borders and distinguishing categories—was not uniform across individuals. There were three to six distinct naming systems, or motifs, that accounted for how individuals organized categories in color space. These motifs occur in languages spread across the globe, suggesting shared underlying mechanisms. Within many languages, however, multiple motifs were used, reflecting variations in how individuals modify their language.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 19785 (2009).

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