GENERAL: Color Theory.

From: IN%"[email protected]" "Art Criticism Discussion Forum" 30-MAR-1994
To: IN%"[email protected]" "Howard Lawrence"
Subj: color universals

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From: JOHN MATTURRI <[email protected]>
Subject: color universals
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To: Howard Lawrence <[email protected]>
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A day or so I made an offhand remark about evidence for color
universals. There've been a few comments so I thought it might be
worth clarifying.

The physical properties associated with color perception are
continuous but our perception and color categories are discrete.
If color categories were culture-bound we might expect that the
basic color categories would vary from culture to culture. The
body of research I alluded to indicates that this is not the case.
Moreover, this anthropological literature accords in interesting
ways with experiments done with color responsiveness in prelinguistic
infants. This has led to a widely accepted conclusion that basic
color categories have a neurophysiological basis and are universal.

A couple of points about some of the comments. Someone pointed to
color-blindness as an indication of non-universality. However, what
is at issue is a quite limited universality: basic color categories
relative to creatures with a specific neurophysiology; the colorblind
do not share this neurophysiology (or, at least, it is not fully intact)
and thus cannot be expected to share the universals. Other comments were
about associative elements of color perception; these stand "above" the
claimed universals and would be expected to vary by culture and individual.
Other comments seemed to relate to fine-grained color distinctions:
what is claimed, however, only is that there are 4 basic color categories;
what distinctions are made within these (or perhaps at their boundaries)
is not at issue. What is claimed only is that cultures perceive the clear
paradigm cases according to the universal classifications.

The basic work was published by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in 1969 (_Basic
Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution_); there have been many
follow-up studdies and as far as I can see these have been essentially
supportive of the original results.

What Berlin and Kay did was to look at 98 languages in terms of their
color categories. They found that these languages varied in terms of the
basic color terms in systematic ways. The 'simplest' languages had only
two color terms macro-white (white and warm hues) and macro-black (black
and cool hues). Invariably cultures that went beyond this added "macro-red",
which brok
seperated most warm hues from white and very light hues (and interestingly
the infant research shows that red is the color most salient for infants).
At the next level of color addition comes either green and/or blue (grue)
or yellow. Whatever of these colors was not introduced in stage 3 is
introduced at stage 4. After this comes the less salient shades (brown, pink,
purple, etc.) that are presumably not hard-wired.

The infant responsiveness research that supports this indicates that there
basic colors that play primary roles in the language-research are precisely
the ones that infants respond to.

Berlin has expanded his research to folk biological classifications (this
stuff is at hand because I've been looking into this) but although there
are some interesting results there I don't see any indication that our
biological perceptions are hard-wired.

I hope this long post is interesting/useful or at least not too boring.

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