Color language universality and evolution: On the explanation for basic color terms

Philosophical Psychology 9 (4):497 – 524 (1996)
Abstract
Since the publication of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's Basic color terms in 1969 there has been continuing debate as to whether or not there are linguistic universals in the restricted domain of color naming. In this paper I am primarily concerned with the attempt to explain the existence of basic color terms in languages. That project utilizes psychological and ultimately physiological generalizations in the explanation of linguistic regularities. The main problem with this strategy is that it cannot account for a particular subset of basic color words: words that the Berlin-Kay tradition calls “composite”. The existence of such words does not compromise the claim that there are basic color words. It does suggest that such words—and basic terms in general—require a more complex type of explanatory strategy than much contemporary work on color naming supposes. It is my main contention that the central problems with the Berlin-Kay tradition arise from the difficulty of linking conceptually and empirically disparate domains: linguistic, psychological, physiological. What is needed is not an attempt to reduce color naming to biology or to culture but, rather, an adequate conceptual account of how people may come to have and use basic color terms—an account which stands between the biological and the cultural.
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