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.

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Word frequency

A few weeks ago, I submitted an application for an online editorial job. The ad stated that the company uses US English style, so I doubled-checked for anything I could incorporate. I was able to include search engine optimization, but the only Honours was part of the official name of my linguistics degree, so that had to stay. I then thought about serial commas, which I don’t usually use. (They have their uses, but if in doubt, leave it out.) I searched for and, and was surprised to find 63 ands in a 938-word document, or 6.71% of the total. 

And is the third or fifth most common word in English, depending on which list you consult. One site gives its frequency as 2.67%, which means I used it more than average. I could avoid almost all of them. I could write:

I hold qualifications in linguistics. I hold qualifications in teaching English to speakers of other languages. I hold qualifications in classical music. I have worked as a legal publishing editor. I have worked as a magazine subeditor. I have worked as an English language teacher.

But it is more natural to write:

I hold qualifications in linguistics, teaching English to speakers of other languages and classical music, and have worked as a legal publishing editor, magazine subeditor and English language teacher.

Three ands in 29 words is just over 10%, without being particularly noticeable. 

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