The colours of our lives

In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay published Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. They argued that there are “a limited number of universal basic color terms which begin to be used by individual cultures in a relatively fixed order”.

They present these as:

(white black) red (green yellow) blue brown (purple pink orange grey/gray).

(There are differences between languages and cultures (mostly involving green and blue, and light blue and dark blue), but I’ll accept that list at face value.)

The website of Lancaster University’s University Centre for Computer Corpus Research of Language (UCREL) contains lists of word frequencies in English.* Its frequency list of adjectives shows that the frequency of usage of colours is in the order

black white red green blue grey brown yellow pink orange purple

(and no others with a frequency of more than 10 per million words).

The two lists are obviously very similar: brown and yellow are the only two colours out of order. The two lists don’t have to match up, because they measure different things, but it’s fairly logical that a basic term in any semantic field will be used more than a non-basic term, and that words which are used more often will be regarded as basic.

There is a slight complication, which is that some colours are also listed as nouns: compare My favourite jumper is black (adjective) and My favourite colour is black (noun). As nouns, the colours are used in the order green, black, red, blue, white and orange. But that doesn’t change things, because the combined usage is still in the same order, except that orange just pips (<haha) pink

As nouns, colours can mean either the colours themselves or something which is that colour, but green and orange have more extended meanings as a village green/bowling green and a fruit respectively (indeed orange started as the name of a fruit (Old French orenge, Spanish naranja, from Arabic nāranj, from Persian nārang, from Sanskrit nāraṅga)). A village green is still a green even when it’s covered in snow, and an orange can be any colour between green (while growing) and red (especially blood oranges). defines an orange as “a globose, reddish-yellow, bitter or sweet, edible citrus fruit”. An orange is not “an orange fruit”!

The UCREL lists use the spellings grey and colour, but gray and color are both used in British English (as well as American English, obviously). Pages for Mac red-underlines gray and changes color to colour then red-underlines color when I change it back for the purposes of this blog post. I definitely use colour and really couldn’t have said whether I use grey or gray, but my diary of my first stay in Korea has four instances of grey and none of gray.

PS: I guess that sparkly tourqouise is not a basic colour term in any language.

* It is derived from Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English by Geoffrey Leech, Paul Rayson and Andrew Wilson, which is based on the British National Corpus.


5 thoughts on “The colours of our lives

  1. So, the old story about “a norange” becoming “an orange” in English wasn’t true after all. The fact that the French word is also missing the N was a giveaway.
    And confirms this.

    (The French phrase “pomme d’orange” is like “pommes frites” in that it refers to a non-apple as a kind of apple. I always wondered how one would order actual fried apples in Paris. At least in English “pineapple” is one word (except in the title of a Scott Joplin rag).)

    Btw, “green” is also a noun referring to a class of vegetables, but only in the plural. I’ve never seen or heard someone call any vegetable a “green” on a solitary basis.


  2. I know the story but was unfamiliar with that site. Maybe u(ne) norenge turned into un(e) orenge in French, so the story is true but misplaced. The ‘n’ got lost somehow.


  3. I considered the possibility of the same process occurring in French (can you think of any other possible instances?). It would work differently from English because the N sound would be present initially on both sides of the verbal divide as opposed to having it migrate from one word to the other.


  4. I don’t know enough about French to be able to guess that. During my very few lessons in French (supporting a friend), I was driven crazy by these letters which disappear and re-appear. Can’t they make up their minds?


  5. To clarify the French situation, there are two versions of the indefinite article: “un” (masculine) and “une” (feminine). The former ends with a nasalized sound (but which may turn into a pure N when followed by a word starting with a vowel) and the latter with a pure N followed by a schwa-like vowel which is frequently dropped. So either one could be part of an N migration, and so I saw no reason to get into those details.

    The French practice of silent ending consonants can be quite confusing to those unfamiliar with the language. One of the things that drives me crazy is the misapplication of this principle by English speakers using French phrases, in particular “coup de grâce”, which is all too often mispronounced as “coup de gras”, i.e. with the final sibilant incorrectly dropped. That transforms the meaning into “stroke of fat”.


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