Sunday, August 20, 2017

Color term salience in cultural evolution

David G. Hays, Enid Margolis, Raoul Naroll, Dale Revere Perkins, Color Term Salience. American Anthropologist, 74:1107-1121, 1972. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00050
Abstract: Eleven focal colors are named by basic color terms in many languages. The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution; with brevity of expression, as measured by phonemic length of basic color terms; with frequency of use, as measured by frequency of basic color terms in literary languages; and with frequency of mention in ethnographic literature. None of these correlations are established in the pioneer study of Berlin and Kay (1969), a study whose defects are well exposed by Durbin (1972) and Wescott (1970). The first two were documented respectively in Naroll (1970) and Durbin (1972); the last two are documented here. These four correlations independently support the Berlin-Kay color salience theory. They furnish a sound basis for further research on color term salience in particular and indeed on salience phenomena in general. We speculate that salience may be an important general principle of cultural evolution.
Consider this finding: "Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution". What that means is that less complex societies (as measured by one of the standard indexes, Marsh's socially complexity scale) have fewer basic color terms than more complex ones. Why?


  1. The best response I got to this was in relation to biological species.

    "I have never thought about it"

    You do not need to think about the difference as you know it when you see it; I think is the sense.

    Translated into text and English can be problematic as translators often only use one English term, can end up either being to general or to specific.

    Barnacle goose becomes goose

    barnacle/ limpit becomes limpit.

    cathan = barnacle goose

    bàirneag-cathan = Barnacle, limpet.

    Relationship is clear but if you just have the trans. Goose/ limpet, the whole relationship between thing and idea is lost.

    If you know how its abstracted it is however plain to see.

    wolf/ dog/ blue/ grey

    A discription of Jesus's social status.

  2. wolf/ dog/ blue/ grey. Different example but similar feature.