Department of Biology
University of Pennsylvania
What we talk about when we talk about colors
Names for colors vary widely across languages, yet color categories can often be remarkably similar. Shared mechanisms of color perception help explain these shared patterns and have been the focus of past work. But the mappings from colors to words are far from identical across languages, which may reflect differences in communicative needs – how often speakers must refer to objects of different colors. A link between compression and categorization in natural language gives us a new way to look for the key factors shaping color vocabularies in 130 languages around the world. We introduce a new approach to inference using this link and reveal a hidden diversity in communicative needs across linguistic communities. We show that the extensive variation in needs can be explained in part by differences in geographic location and local biogeography, while commonalities in the color regions of greatest need are correlated with the colors of salient objects, including ripe fruits in primate diets. Our work reconciles opposing theories of color naming, while opening new directions to study cross-cultural variation in communicative needs and its impact on the cultural evolution of color categories.