World Color Survey

Posted on: 23/12/2009

Delwin T. Lindsey and Angela M. Brown analyzed the color terms in the World Color Survey (WCS) (, a large color-naming database obtained from informants of mostly unwritten languages spoken in preindustrialized cultures that have had limited contact with modern, industrialized society. The color naming idiolects of 2,367 WCS informants fall into three to six “motifs,” where each motif is a different color-naming system based on a subset of a universal glossary of 11 color terms. These motifs are universal in that they occur worldwide, with some individual variation, in completely unrelated languages. Strikingly, these few motifs are distributed across the WCS informants in such a way that multiple motifs occur in most languages. Thus, the culture a speaker comes from does not completely determine how he or she will use color terms. An analysis of the modern patterns of motif usage in the WCS languages, based on the assumption that they reflect historical patterns of color term evolution, suggests that color lexicons have changed over time in a complex but orderly way. The worldwide distribution of the motifs and the cooccurrence of multiple motifs within languages suggest that universal processes control the naming of colors.

English and many other languages spoken in industrialized societies include 11–12 basic color terms. In contrast, there is great diversity in color terminology across languages spoken in preindustrialized cultures, with some languages using as few as two or three color terms, and other languages using more. To account for this diversity, Berlin and Kay proposed two conjectures: (i) there exists a limited set of “universal” categories from which all languages draw their color lexicons, and (ii) languages “evolve” by adding color names in a relatively fixed sequence. There is now overwhelming empirical support for the first conjecture. The second conjecture has been more difficult to evaluate, in part because it has proven difficult to compare color naming across languages, and in part because it is difficult to test an inherently time-dependent process with synchronic data.

In this paper, we explore an important idea that links these two conjectures: that color lexicons occur in only a modest number of distinct, universal color-naming systems, which can be placed in an ordered hierarchy from simple to complex based on the number of categories into which color space is lexically partitioned. We evaluated this idea by analyzing the data of the World Color Survey (WCS) (, a corpus of color-naming data from 110 world languages. The results of our analysis indicate that color-naming lexicons tend to cluster statistically into just a few systems, which we call motifs, which occur, with some individual variation, in the lexicons of informants living in all parts of the world. In this sense, motifs are universal. Analysis further revealed a striking cooccurrence of multiple distinct motifs within most of the WCS languages.

We then examined Berlin and Kay’s second conjecture, on the hypothesis that within-language lexical diversity is a marker for lexical change in synchronic data. In broad agreement with Berlin and Kay and their collaborators, our analysis suggested that color terms change over time in a principled way.

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