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Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution
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Top Customer Reviews
The fundamental idea of Berlin and Kay is that basic colour terms emerge in a similar order in all languages and share a common level of salience across languages after their emergence. A "basic" colour term is a term under which other ("non-basic") colour terms can be classified. For example, the English colour terms 'scarlet', 'strawberry' and 'magenta' are not basic because they can all be classified under the basic term 'red'. 'Pink', however, is a basic term because it cannot be classified under any other colour term. In a language in which no basic term for 'pink' has yet emerged, many colours that an English speaker would regard as examples of 'pink' might be described as types of 'red'. The essence of Berlin and Kay's research is the observation that 'pink' emerges after 'red' in all languages, and remains less salient. Run a search on Google for each of those terms: you will get less hits for 'pink' than for 'red'. Try the same thing in other languages that you know. You will get a similar result.
This book is a seminal work that has given rise to a great deal of related research. The theory has evolved a little since it was published but Basic Color Terms remains the starting point for anyone with an interest in this field.
The colour samples are restrictive because variation in luminosity or reflectance are not included. At the same time, however, the stimulus array is also very complex and the labelling task forces the informants to make judgements and choices which they rarely encounter in real life.
The research is unrealistic. How many Europeans would be willing - and able - to classify 350 (!) colour chips?
The colour research of Berlin and Kay (and their followers) is being conducted in "linguistic isolation"; that is, hardly any notice is taken of how colour terms are used by speakers and hearers in every-day interaction. Morphemic, syntactic, semantic (other than naming) or pragmatic issues are not dealt with.
With Berlin and Kay's system it is also easy to make the colours fit the thesis.
While Berlin and Kay's research has revived interest in the subject much effort has gone into defending a flawed theory. For a more frutiful approach see the section on colour terms in Wierzbicka, Anna (1996) Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford: Oxford UP.