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How Colors Developed as Languages Evolved

November 23, 2021

Having found clues scattered throughout more modern vocabularies, linguists have concluded that human languages of the world may be derivative of proto human language that was spoken in East Africa about 50,000 years ago. The Cro-Magnons were the first modern Homo Sapiens that migrated to Indo-Europe who were known to have the physical capabilities of speech. According to an article published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology by PhD students at MIT’s Department of Linguistics, cave art began to appear around the same time in acoustic hot spots that could echo human sounds. Ultimately, mankind’s routine utterance of sounds and visual drawings of the world that surrounded them led to language and the journey of richness of today’s human life.

Archaeologists tend to agree that cave artist discovered the first pigments of color as early as 40,000 years ago. To document things that were important in their life, these early humans combined soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk to create the first palette of colors, including red, yellow, brown, black and white. In the early 18th century, Sir Isaac Newton created the first color wheel when he discovered the visible spectrum of white light. By directing light through prisms, Newton arranged red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet onto a rotating disk. Once the disk was spun, the colors blurred together, and the human eye perceived a blended color of white. His experiments also led to the theory that red, yellow, and blue were the primary colors from which all other colors were derived.

Six Basic Colors Distinguished by Languages

Although the human eye can perceive millions of different colors, the number of categories used in human languages is much smaller. Moreover, different languages carve up the color spectrum differently. In fact, some languages only have two terms for light and dark, where dark roughly translates as cool colors and light as warm colors. Recent studies at MIT focused on cultural influences that impact the communication of colors by different language speakers. Researchers concluded that languages of industrialized cultures use up to a dozen color categories while some languages use a few as three. Most notably is the fact that the warm spectrum tends to have most words for foreground colors, such as orange, yellow, and red, and fewer words for background colors like blue or green.

Listed below are interesting correlations uncovered as cultures, languages, and colors developed over tens of thousands of years:

  • Black – The first color used by cave artists was black, which could be produced using charcoal. Later on, paleolithic rock artists achieved even darker shades of black by burning bones or grinding a powder of manganese oxide. All languages have a word to describe black as a color.
  • Pink – Rock samples taken from deep beneath the Sahara Desert have a bright pink pigment dated at 1.1 billion years old, which makes it the oldest color of geological record. This is an interesting find, as the color pink is an illusion created by the human brain mixing red and purple light. In actuality, pink doesn’t have a wavelength.
  • Cosmic Latte – Although you might guess the color of the universe is Black, not so say astronomers from Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at John Hopkins University. Initially reported to be a light turquoise color, a post-findings review revealed the freeware originally used did not correct for the white point of the human eye, so the corrected color of the universe is Cosmic Latte (#fff8e7), a creamy beige.
  • Forbidden Colors – Red-green and yellow-blue are composed of pairs of hues whose light frequencies automatically cancel each other out in the human eye. Although the limitation results from the way humans perceive color in the first place, in their purest form, these color combinations are impossible to see simultaneously.
  • Blue – Blue is the coolest cooler, but it is certainly not the youngest color of the Red, Yellow, Blue, Black grouping. Both the color blue and its shades of indigo, turquoise, and royal blue are recent linguistic inventions, and many ancient civilizations did not have words to identify shades and hues of blue.

Where most color pigments came from the diet of animals and were responsible for the color of their skin, eyes, and organs, scientists have confirmed that blue, as we see in plants and animals, is not a pigment. Nonetheless, all languages that distinguish six basic colors, contain terms for black, white, red, green, yellow, and blue. Additional color terms were not-surprisingly added in a fixed order as a language evolved. Most importantly, cave art should not be considered something that is marginal to today’s cultures, but a cross-modality transfer that was central to the formation of human cognitive abilities. That said it has only taken 40,000 years for us to see the writing on the wall.

A more recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology focused on the important language and color perception differences between closely located Mongolian and Chinese speakers. In Chinese Mandarin there are multiple colors for blue and green whereas Mongolian has only one word for green. The results suggest that color perception may be shaped by both linguistic relativism and universal forces (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) as speakers spontaneously categorized and discriminate against colors based on language and cognition. For optimal results in translating your product catalogs for consumers, contact ProLingo to discuss your needs for any specified language.

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