Is the 12th Basic Color Term (BCT) always light blue as in Russian “голубой” (goluboy) and Italian “azzurro” or are there languages in which the 12th BCT is different? Which languages have a 12th BCT?

When you ask '[i]s the 12th Basic Color Term (BCT) always light blue' I assume you're referring to work from Berlin and Kay's 1969 book "Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution" (U Cal Press). This book and subsequent work argued that languages acquire colours in a systematic order, so a language with only 2 terms would have a light/dark or warm/cold distinction, and then the next addition would be red, followed by green or yellow, then the other, then blue, etc.

Although Berlin and Kay's work was a real innovation, it has not stood up to scrutiny over the years. Not only have Berlin and Kay relaxed their finding, but they've been challenged by others. Some of the better reads on this topic are:

  • Saunders, Barbara (2000) Revisiting basic color terms. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6, 81-99.
  • Levinson, Stephen C. (2000). Yélî Dnye and the theory of basic color terms. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 10(1):3-55.

Figuring out what is a 'basic colour term' (as opposed to a historical compound) is incredibly difficult, as is figuring out the order in which languages acquire them. Figuring out the order of colour term inclusion in a language is incredibly hard once you include more languages than Berlin and Kay original looked at. Even in their original data set they are incredibly flexible once they get beyond the basic few terms. This is a summary of chapter 2 of their book (of which they have a not-very readable summary on page 17):

  1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, and/or grey.

So by the seventh colour term they basically concede that there is no way to predict order of inclusion in a language. Given that their constraints have been even further relaxed since this analysis I would not find it surprising if there were a language where a separate lexical item for 'light blue' were found before others in rule 7 above.

  • Are there really languages that have no word for green, yellow, or blue? – Qwertie Nov 19 '11 at 1:46
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    There are languages where green and blue have the same word (eg Chinese). The Wikipedia page for this one is pretty good - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Berlin and Kay's book (cited in post above) goes into detail about languages that only have a warm/dark colour distinction. – LaurenG Nov 19 '11 at 4:58
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    @Qwertie There are many languages with no basic colour term for those colours, but often they will still have ways of indicating them (where they are found in their environment) by comparisons such as 'sky colour', 'plant colour', etc. – Gaston Ümlaut Feb 26 '12 at 22:12
  • @LaurenG Despite what's said on that wikipage, both 'blue'(蓝) and 'green'(绿) have been there for quite a long time. Both notions predate AD 110 when the first dictionary of Chinese was compiled. Green was explained to mean 青 towards yellow and it has been a different colour in 诗经 (collection of poems dated from 11th to 7th century BC). Many Classical Chinese texts use 青 because it sounded more archaic and literary. On the other hand, blue (蓝), judged from how it is written, was initially the name of some grass-like plant and finally became a colour term – user58955 May 15 '14 at 12:19
  • @LaurenG However, it is sort of clear from the ancient texts that 青 was an umbrella term in the beginning, but the range of the colour gradually shrank as the ranges of 蓝(blue) and 绿(green) expanded over time. Even after such differences are made in the actual language, the scholars continued to use 青 because it sounded archaic. This causes a heavy overlapping of colour ranges. I wish to reiterate that both blue and green appeared in Classical Ages, they are definitely a recent innovation. – user58955 May 15 '14 at 12:26

In addition to your examples of Italian and Russian, Greek also distinguishes between light blues (γαλάζιο) and dark blues (μπλε)1. Several sources2, 3 also claim that Hungarian distinguishes between light reds (piros) and dark reds (vörös), but it is questionable whether these are actually BCTs.

As far as I'm aware, that is about the extent of 12th BCTs in languages that have been identified.

1 Basic colour terms in Modern Greek: Twelve terms including two blues
2 Wikipedia entry on "Hungarian language"
3 Alan Kennedy's Color Language Project

  • I should add here that piros and vörös are not anymore distinguished that heavily in Hungarian as far as I can tell (being a native speaker). – István Zachar Jun 26 '12 at 13:40
  • The paper tacitly assumes by translating English into Greek that there are 12 terms, notwithstanding that five are recent French loans. The study is detailed, but it also makes it obvious that some of the 12 are more basic than the others. I agree that there is something special about light blue in Greek, but not that "purple" or "pink", higher up in Berlin & Kay's hierarchy, are also basic (which corroborates @LaurenG). – Nick Nicholas Sep 16 at 2:21

Not sure if that counts as BCTs but in my native speaker's intuition there are three basic words for 'blue' in Polish:

  • granatowy 'navy blue, dark blue'
  • błękitny 'azure, light blue'
  • niebieski 'blue'

I will admit that in my poor, CGA 16-colour world of a male, niebieski is an umbrella term for all three. For my wife, however, they are seperate colours — even if pink and salmon are, too.

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    I'd be surprised if your wife really used salmon as a BCT. Some English speakers do use it as a non-basic color term in everyday conversation. But if a fashion-impaired dude or an ESL student asked "What does 'salmon cardigan' mean?", most English speakers with fashion sense would offer a definition like "It's a kind of sweater that's a funny orange-y shade of pink." (By contrast, if an ESL speaker asked "What's green?", no native English speaker would define it as "a funny blue-ish shade of yellow," except maybe as a joke.) – Leah Velleman Feb 27 '12 at 15:04
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    I said I'm not sure the blue's count as BCTs and mostly added pink as a funny observation, but if that part caught your attention, I can add that she actually corrected my a few times that the house or whatever it was that I had described to her was actually salmon, not pink like I had said. I now asked her to describe salmon to me and she said 'Well, it's the colour of the salmon.' I asked if she could use 'pink' in the description and she said 'No, because it's a different colour'. But I can't say for sure that she's not an individual case, I don't know. – kamil-s Feb 27 '12 at 16:07
  • Ha! I stand corrected. Awesome. – Leah Velleman Feb 28 '12 at 3:00
  • Funny, isn't it? We have a 4.5 year old daughter and she caught the distinction very quickly, too, although it did take a few corrections from my wife. I'm not ready to believe, though, that it's a nationwide distinction. – kamil-s Feb 28 '12 at 7:58

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