September 2011
Volume 11, Issue 11
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2011
How many basic color terms are there in English?
Author Affiliations
  • Delwin Lindsey
    Department of Psychology, Ohio State University-Mansfield, USA
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University, USA
  • Angela Brown
    College of Optometry, Ohio State University, USA
Journal of Vision September 2011, Vol.11, 380. doi:
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      Delwin Lindsey, Angela Brown; How many basic color terms are there in English?. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):380. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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To understand the relationship between color naming and color appearance, investigators have traditionally studied color naming across languages, and have emphasized the language-to-language variability in the number of color terms in the lexicon and how they are assigned to colored stimuli. Our previous analysis of the World Color Survey (WCS), and now of English, suggest that greater emphasis should be placed on the color naming behavior of the individual informant.

Previously, we found that the color-naming data from individual WCS informants clustered into about four universal “motifs”, or characteristic combinations of color terms used to name a standard set of color samples. These motifs occur worldwide, with minor variation across individuals, across and, strikingly, within languages: most WCS languages included multiple motifs among their speakers.

Does this result apply to English? Here, we report a cluster analysis of color-naming data on 58 native English speakers, collected using instructions patterned after the WCS. Although subjects used 100 different color names among them, these represented only about 18 distinct color categories: the eleven Basic Color Terms of Berlin and Kay (1969), plus seven additional color categories. These categories were organized into at least two distinct motifs: one that included only the eleven basic terms, and one that included the seven additional terms from our glossary. Although women used more color terms than men, once the synonymous color terms were glossed to the 18 categories, equal numbers of men and women in fell into each of the two motif groups.

Thus, the eleven Basic Color Terms do not adequately capture the color categorical structure of English. Rather, the diversity of color naming behavior in English, like that in the WCS, reveals differences between individuals, and regularities across individuals, not obvious from examination at the level of the language as a whole.

NEI/NIH: R21EY018321 Ohio Lions Eye Research Foundation. 

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