The Evolution of Color Linguistics: A Phylogenetic Approach to Color Terms

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Languages have shown nearly universal patterns in the naming of colors. With the help of phylogenetic frameworks and computational analysis, Yale scientists Hannah Haynie and Claire Bowern have studied how these patterns evolve.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to apply the principles of evolution to color naming. The Berlin-Kay theory posits that color terms evolve in distinct stages. According to these stages, language development begins by distinguishing between black and white and continues by developing terms for red. Next, terms develop for yellow and green, blue and brown, and finally pink, purple, orange, and gray. To evaluate this developmental pathway, the study applied phylogenetic comparisons to the Pama-Nyungan family of Australian languages. Phylogenetic comparisons, a tool only recently applied to color systems, use historical relationships to identify possible evolutionary pathways. Since the Pama-Nyungan family languages include all five of these linguistic color stages, Haynie and Bowern have been able to study the order and lineage of these color terms using such comparisons.

The study concludes that there is greater variability in color categories than previously thought. Intriguingly, some language subgroups actually lose color terms—a finding that directly contradicts earlier color linguistic theories. The implications of this study are large: phylogenetic methods reveal how our brains and cognitive constraints influence languages across cultures. Our brains may influence our culture more than previously thought. “What we think of as universal, or properties of brains in general, are actually more culturally determined,” said Bowern. “Contemporary languages allow us to see into history in a lot of different ways.”