COLOR CATEGORIES IN
THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE
the rainbow is a continuum of photons sorted by frequency, but perceptually it is a display
of sharply distinguishable colors: nature presents a continuum, but we perceive in categories.
Colors are important in mankind’s perception of the
world. Consequently it is not surprising that colors will
find their way into language in the form of color
Color is a property of light that depends on wavelength. When
light falls on an object, some of it is absorbed and some is
Two different views dominate the discussion about
color terminology:universalists and relativists.
Scholars like Wierzbicka (1980) strongly stand behind
the idea that each word is loaded with cultural and
historical meanings, associations.
Other researchers like Berlin and Kay (1969) use
physical stimuli and the possible universality of
linguistic and cognitive processes in their theory. They
claim that focal meanings of basic color terms are
substantially similar in all languages, suggesting a
universal color system based on direct physical stimuli.
Our research shows that color terminology is not based
only on observation, stimuli, but more on symbolic,
cultural meaning, e.g. a black box. In reality a black box
is not necessarily black. It is usually orange or yellow.
Green finger is not green. It simply means that we have a
gift to seed the plants.
Obviously, these phrases (green finger, black box) are not
supported by our direct sensual experiences.
Languages contain different numbers of color
names and carve up the spectrum somewhat
Therefore, we maintain that language is not a
mere mirror of our reality.
Our sensual experience is cognitively modified
in our neural area and the final result is a
combination of our neural responses and social
and cultural constraints.
Color has long been used as a symbol of various
cultural models of behaviour.
A well-known use of the symbolism of color is
in the liturgical colors of the Christian church,
e.g. purple=Advent and Lent, white = Easter,
red= feasts of the martyrs.
Many other religions evoke color symbolism,
Berlin and Kay (1969)
the evolutionary sequence proposed by Berlin and Kay
(1969): white and black→ red →green or
yellow→green and yellow →blue, brown, purple, pink,
Berlin and Kay (1969) also found evidence suggesting
that there is a standard order in which basic color terms
are added to languages.
If a language has only two color terms, they refer to
dark and light colors. If a third basic color term is
added, it refers to red.
Negative (-) short wavelength
dark/cold GREEN (+/-)
WHITE long wavelength
positive (+) RED (+/-)
BLACK / WHITE,
Our first binary level includes two colors, black and white,
considered to be two extremes (antonyms): light/dark,
One color evokes strong emotions (black) and the other is quite
Black is a color that absorbs all light falling on it, so that it is the
perceived effect of zero reflection from a given surface.
White, on the other hand, is the color perceived when a surface
reflects a selection of colors from the spectrum which combine to
give the effect of brighteness but zero color.
The distinguishing semantic component of white is, roughly, +
light, whereas of black it is –light.
The second binary level refers to two interchangeable
colors: red and yellow.
Both colors are considered to be warm, and their
associated words are heat and light. They differ from
the first level colors as they are interchangeable and
they include ambiguous associations: positive and
In different cultures one color might be used instead of
the other, e.g. sun → red (Japanese culture), sun
→yellow (in the majority of European cultures).
Third level colors (blue-green) are perceived as cold,
interchangeable pair of words.
In many languages speakers do not make a clear
distinction between these two colors.
In Sudanese Arabic axdar (=green) meant both light blue
In Japanese culture it is used interchangeably. Fresh
vegetables are defined as blue, and the traffic lights are
seen as blue.
Sometimes these two colors overlap referring to the same
reality, e.g. Navajo speakers merge blue and green into
the subject was shown a ring of 12 squares
surrounding the fixation point. Eleven of the twelve
square were the same color, and one (in a random
location) was a different color.
Fourth level colors refers to complex colors or
combination of two colors, e.g. orange
BROWN ORANGE PINK PURPLE GREY
YELLOW YELLOW RED BLUE BLACK
+ + + + +
BLACK RED WHITE RED WHITE
Our binary model of colors is based on physical
characteristics of colors (the length of waves), e.g.
green and blue are products of short light-waves, and
thus appear darker. The feature of darkness (short light
waves) connects these two colors.
The colors red and yellow are perceptual products of
long light waves and they are perceived as warm and
Black and white are not generally considered true
colors; black is said to result from the absence of color,
and white from the presence of all colors mixed
together. They are an antonymous pair of words.
COLORFUL METAPHORS AND
We describe ourselves and our behavior using
colors. When we are happy we are tinkled pink
and greet the world with flying colors. Envious
people turn green, and cowards are yellow in the
face of danger. Sometimes we see pink elephants
or we might be in a brown study. We call our
language blue when we speak in a profane way.
In political rhetoric color is often used to convey
It is obvious that color terms in phrases and
proverbs have additional meaning besides their
reference to the color itself.
The names of colors very often have a symbolic
connotational value based on folk concepts or
Black as sadness, grief, deep mourning, pessimisms, anguish,
misfortune, evil, unconscious state, and death
a black economy (business activity and income which people do not
record in order to avoid paying tax on it)
a black eye (an eye where the skin around it has gone dark because it
has been hit), e.g. He had a fight at school and came home with a
black hole (an imaginary place in which things are lost)
black humour (an amusing way of looking at or treating something
that is serious or sad)
a black look (when your face is full of anger and hate), e.g. She gave
me a black look.
black magic (a type of magic that is believed to use evil spirits to do
Referring to two basic color terms, black and
white, our free association test shows that in the
majority of European languages black is
associated with dark, mystery, evil, night, etc.
Dominant associations are negative. Black and
white are perceived as two extreme sides:
positive-negative, light-dark, warm and cold.
Dark and cool colors are: black, green and blue.
Warm and bright colors are: white, yellow, red
White as purity, innocence, chastity,
recognition, cowardice, defeat
candidate (Lat. candidus=white, pure,
white hair (old person)
white handed (an honest man)
a white wedding (a symbol of purity)
green as vegetation, youth, envy, jealousy, freshness and permission.
to be green about/around the gills (to look ill, as if you are going to
vomit), e.g. He was out drinking last night, was he? I thought he looked a bit
green about the gills this morning.
to be green with envy (to wish very much that you had something that
another person has), e.g. Sharon's going off to the south of France for three
weeks and we're all green with envy.
to give sb/sth the green light (to give permission for someone to do
something or for something to happen), e.g. They've just been given the
green light to build two new supermarkets in the region.
to get the green light (As soon as we get the green light from the council
we'll start building.)
have green fingers (American have a green thumb (to be good at keeping
plants healthy and making them grow),
blue as nobility, aristocracy, sadness, depression,
something unexpected, rare, truthful, sexual
scream/shout blue murder (to show your
annoyance about something, especially by shouting or
complaining very loudly
once in a blue moon (rarely),
out of the blue (If something happens out of the
blue, it is completely unexpected),
blues (a type of slow, sad music, originally from the
yellow as cowardice, jealousy, and false
yellow looks (jealousy)
to be yellow (afraid)
yellow journalism (writing in newspapers that
try to get people's attention or influence their
opinions by using strong language or false
RED as fire, blood, love, spirit, beauty, strength, health,
energy, joy, sex, success, anger, courage and patriotism
to paint the town red (to go out and enjoy yourself in the
evening, often drinking a lot of alcohol and dancing),
red-hot (very exciting or successful),
red-blooded (a red-blooded man has a lot of energy and enjoys
sex very much),
the red-light district (the part of a city where many people
offer sex for money),
to be in the red (to owe money to a bank),
to see red (to become very angry )
In our sample of proverbs and phrases black,
white and red are the most frequent colors with
the largest map of reference.
Our perception of color depends not only upon
our ability to see the color, but also on our
ability to decode it within a framework of our
cultural constraints and associations.
Binarism is viewed as consisting of two partially
independent chromatic channels (warm and
cold), organized in a sequence, which is based
on the following model: white/black→ red/
yellow→green/blue, and complex colors like
brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray.