Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language

Quote Originally Posted by Nautilus
When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic relativity, which held that language shapes perception. Color was the “parade example,” Kay says. His professors and textbooks taught that people could only recognize a color as categorically distinct from others if they had a word for it. If you knew only three color words, a rainbow would have only three stripes. Blue wouldn’t stand out as blue if you couldn’t name it.

What’s more, according to the relativist view, color categories were arbitrary. The spectrum of color has no intrinsic organization. Scientists had no reason to suspect that cultures divvied it up in similar ways. To an English speaker like Kay, the category “red” might include shades ranging from deep wine to light ruby. But to Tahitians, maybe “red” also included shades that Kay would call “orange” or “purple.” Or maybe Tahitians chunked colors not by a combination of hue, lightness and saturation, as Americans do, but by material qualities, like texture or sheen.

To his surprise, however, Kay found it easy to understand colors in Tahitian. The language had fewer color terms than English. For example, only one word, ninamu, translated to both green and blue (now known as grue). But most Tahitian colors mapped astonishingly well to categories that Kay already knew intuitively, including white, black, red, and yellow. It was strange, he thought, that the groupings weren’t more random.


Our color vision system, it turns out, is terrifically complex. When light hits the human retina, it activates three classes of photoreceptor cells, called cones. Although all cones can respond to all wavelengths in the visible spectrum, each type is most sensitive to one particular slice: blue, yellow, or yellow-green. The relatively small differences between these peaks allow the brain to do some pretty sophisticated calculations, which determine the colors of the objects we look at.

This code remains something of a mystery, but neuroscientists are beginning to crack it. There is some evidence, for example, that in the visual cortex, an information processing center near the back of the skull, the brain adjusts signals relayed from the cones to account for variations in ambient light, making a banana appear yellow or an apple red whether it’s hanging in broad daylight or perched atop a dimly lit counter.

Our ability to discriminate between “banana yellow” or “apple red,” however, may arise near the bottom of the brain, in the inferior temporal cortex, a region responsible for high-level visual tasks such as recognizing faces, says Bevil Conway, a color expert at Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In macaque monkeys (whose retinas are similar to our own), he recently found tiny islands of cells in this region that seem to be tuned to specific hues, providing a sort of spatial map of the color spectrum.2 The neural networks that file colors into groups, meanwhile, seem to reside in yet another brain area, and only in humans.3,4

That we have separate hardware for differentiating colors and organizing them is telling, says Jules Davidoff, a psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London. It may explain, for example, why two English speakers can look at the same shade of maroon, and while they can both distinguish it from nearby shades, disagree on its basic color term. One person may label it red; the other brown, or purple. In fact, as Davidoff and others came to find, color categories show far more variability than Kay and Berlin’s original study picked up.