Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orange hair

In his collection of Obvious Untruths, Chrs mentions "red" hair:
No person naturally has Red Hair, They only have Orange Hair. Why do people become so hysterical when you suggest that someone has Orange Hair?
Despite the proverbial hotheadedness of orangeheads, I've never known anyone to react hysterically to this observation. Rather, it tends to be treated as a bit of quasi-wit of the why-do-we-drive-on-the-parkway-and-park-in-the-driveway variety, rarely eliciting more than a monosyllabic chuckle.

But why do we call orange hair -- and orange foxes and purple wine and a lot of other non-red things -- "red"? I remember learning about "red" hair as a kid, around the same time that I learned to call brown and peach people "black" and "white," and being confused by it. Calling things by inacurate color names doesn't come naturally to kids -- they have to be taught it -- so why is it so common among adults? It's not just a quirk of the English language, either. In Chinese, for example, the word for "carrot" literally means "red radish," and orangutans are called "red-furred apes." What's going on here?

Part of it seems to be a preference for what Brent Berlin and Paul Kay called "basic color terms." After surveying numerous languages, they identified 11 basic color terms, some of which are more basic than others. Donald Brown summarizes their findings as follows:
[i]f a language has only two colors--and all languages have at least two--they are always white and black; if a language has three colors, the one added is red; if a fourth is added, it will be either green or yellow; when a fifth is added, it will then include both green and yellow; the sixth added is blue; the seventh added is brown; and if an eighth or more terms are added, it or they will be purple, pink, orange, or gray. (quoted here)
So the hierarchy goes something like this:
  1. black, white
  2. red
  3. yellow, green
  4. blue
  5. brown
  6. purple, pink, orange, gray
  7. all other colors
In every case I can think of where something is consistently described with an objectively incorrect color term, the term used is always more basic than the actual color. Many orange things (foxes, flames, Yellow trucks) are called "red" or "yellow," but few if any red or yellow things are called "orange." Gray dogs and purple violets can be called "blue," but bluebirds are never called "gray" or "purple." Human skins come in various shades of brown and pink, but we prefer to call them instead by the most basic of colors: black, white, red, and yellow.

Berlin and Kay would say that English has 11 basic colors and that all other colors are non-basic. If a color is non-basic, you can get away with using a more basic color word instead and no one will look at you strange. Words like "magenta" and "goldenrod" are available if you want to use them, but you can always just say "pink" and "yellow" instead. Basic colors, on the other hand, are mandatory vocabulary. If something is unambiguously blue in color, "blue" is the most basic word you can use for it. You can get less basic if you like (cornflower, navy, turquoise, etc.), but you can't use a more basic word like "green" or "black." I think there's also a middle rank of semi-basic colors like purple an orange. In some situations these words are basic  (if a guy's wearing an purple T-shirt, you can't call it "red" or "blue"), but in others they're not ("red grapes" is okay). The truly basic colors in English are black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue. The semi-basic colors are brown, pink, purple, orange, and gray. Other languages will draw the lines differently (in Chinese, blue is only semi-basic and you can get away with calling the sky "green") but will presumably always conform to Berlin and Kay's hierarchy.

Which leads to a more fundamental question: why that particular hierarchy? The most basic colors are certainly not the ones you'd tend to encounter most often in nature. If the purpose of language is to describe what we see, you'd think every language on earth would consider brown a basic color, with red much lower on the hierarchy. You'd also think that at least one of the many languages spoken by Caucasians would have a basic color word for describing their own skin! I mean, how much more basic can you get? But they don't.

The other obvious theory would be that the basic colors reflect some property of the human eye, but that doesn't quite seem to work, either. As far as the eye is concerned, the basic colors are black and white (rods) and red, green, and blue (cones). So why does yellow outrank blue and sometimes even green? And what's so special about red that makes it more basic than its fellow primaries?


  1. A couple thoughts come to mind, more of less randomly:
    Firstly, as a gardener I've learned that one tends to use most basic color words for the color most like that color available in a particular group. So in a given group of plants (roses, hostas, whatever), "blue" gets attached to the bluest types in that group -- no matter that "blue" hostas are green and "blue" roses are purple. Which is the rule operating in your comparison of a purple t-shirt and a purple grape -- t-shirts can be unambiguously red, grapes can't.
    I wonder, also, if the preference for red, yellow and green has to do with an evolutionary history of searching for ripe fruit -- which are generally red, sometimes yellow, on a green background. Brown may be the most common color in nature, but brown things are seldom as interesting or useful as red or yellow things.

  2. I think part of it is that the majority of people are happy with an approximation and don't really worry about it too much. There is also the fact that no one sees things exactly the same and if you bring it under a different light, it can turn a completely different shade.

  3. Joseph:

    As a gardener, are you aware of any plant names that violate Berlin-Kay -- that is, any plant that is referred to with a term lower on the hierarchy than its actual color?

    I think it's a good rule of thumb that we tend to use the more basic color words for less basic colors only if there's no possibility of the basic word being taken literally. There still seems to be a fair amount of arbitrariness. Foxes, tigers, and orangutans are all pretty much the same color, but foxes are "red," tigers can be "orange" or "yellow," and until I came to Taiwan I'd never heard an orangutan called anything but "orange" (perhaps the "orang-" spelling influences us English-speakers?).

    The fruit thing is interesting, since it meshes with the standard just-so stories about our eyes. Most vertebrates are tetrachromats (i.e., see in four primary colors), but mammals are all dichromats, with the exception of primates, which are trichromats. The hypothesis is that during the Mesozoic pretty much all mammals were nocturnal and their color vision degenerated, but that trichromacy later evolved in primates in connection with fruit-eating.

    One result of most mammals' poor color vision is that pretty much all mammals (the exceptions being, as you'd expect, primates) are brown or gray in color. So I'm not so sure that brown things -- which would include most of our natural predators and prey -- can be considered less important than red. I agree with your larger point, though. Red may be comparatively rare, but it perhaps redeems itself by being the color of blood and ripe fruit.


    Agreed, but what I'm interested in is why we approximate in the specific way that we do -- why "red hair" comes naturally but "orange blood" does not.

    Certainly people sometimes disagree about the objective color of things (my girlfriend, for example, insists that my blue eyes are 100% gray), but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm interested in things which everyone can agree are called by objectively incorrect color terms. I'm pretty sure "white" wine and "green" tea (which are the same color) don't actually look white or green to anyone.

  4. Wm,
    The only thing I can think which violates the hierarchy is when people talk about leaf color: Leaves which are actually green get routinely called blue and purple.

    Yes, certainly brown things are important, but given so many things are brown saying "look out for that brown animal over there!" doesn't convey much useful information. But saying "There are delicious red berries on that bush" tells me exactly what to look for.