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In the Munsell system, color is described by 3 dimensions called hue, value, and saturation. English has a lot of words for hue (e.g. red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violent, magenta), but very few words for values (e.g. light, dark) and almost none for saturation (e.g. neon, pastel). I was wondering if there were any other languages that had more robust color vocabularies?

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    Usually robust vocabularies exist in the semantic spheres which are important for the people who often speak about them and for whom being very exact in that is a vital matter, so what you're looking for is found in the communities in which minute variation of colors are important, like among painters, car sellers, lipstick and hair-dye makers, color printing specialists, etc. It's unlikely that there ever existed peoples among which such professions were so important that influenced their whole languages. I'm afraid your search is all in vain.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 18, 2022 at 22:08
  • Although that is an interesting idea, it has a flaw. If languages lack color words because precision descriptions of colors were not needed, they why do so many languages have a large variety of color words for hue? Unless you can explain why determining hues was important for human societies throughout history while value and saturation were not, this explanation does not work.
    – E Tam
    Sep 21, 2022 at 18:17
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    You'll be surprised to find out how many languages have just 2 or 3 words for all the colors in the world ;) Colors aren't at all essential for a person to survive, note how color-blind people do well in our colorful society.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 22, 2022 at 3:42
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    @ETam The usual story told to explain this is that at least historically, fruit formed a large enough part of our diet that it was important to determine the degree of ripeness, which in turn is reliably indicated by hue. Nov 9, 2022 at 20:06

2 Answers 2

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Whether this qualifies or not is open to interpretation, but there is a system for describing how saturated a colour is in Punjabi.

Due to a long period of Persian rule historically, about a fifth of Punjabi vocabulary is loaned from Persian. This included the Persian colour terms, which got integrated into the language without replacing the original native colour terms.

A new meaning that came from this is Persian colour + Punjabi colour = more saturated version of that colour. So we can say: لال سرخ to mean "deep red." This is a bit different from using an adjective like "deep" in English because the combination is different for each color. Persian red = سرخ and Punjabi red = لال. These combinations also often have figurative meanings, لال سرخ can be "red with anger."

I think in languages like Punjabi in which words are highly inflectional and which employ reduplication to make new meanings from combined synonyms there is less of a need for qualifying modifers to describe the type of colour, because there are already regular tendencies which can be employed to change the connotation of the word(s) used themselves.

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    This is rather like the situation with Mayan languages in which everyday uses of numbers are Spanish numbers; but when the Long Count is being discussed, the Mayan numbers are used. Or, in a different science, and much slower evolution, the way polyploidy can generate whole spare sets of genes to be adapted to new contexts.
    – jlawler
    Nov 10, 2022 at 17:11
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One problem is that saturation is more of a post-hoc scientific construct, and not a thing that people independently perceive and have names for. Ordinary general adjectives can be pressed into service (weak, moderate, strong). The term "pale" which is specific to color sort of describes saturation. Brightness is also perceptually very difficult to divide into three of more discrete ranges, except via "medium" which could be about anything and is not specifically a color term. There are no reports of languages that have richer color-specific lexical classifications of saturation and brightness ("lexical" meaning "reduced to one word" – any language can construct elaborate descriptive phrases to point to certain areas of a perceptual scale).

In the realm of hue, a distinction is made in linguistic color studies between "basic" terms and others. "Green" is a basic term, and "olive green" or "sea green" are not, because basic terms are single words. Languages are said to have between 2 and 12 basic color terms, English having 11. Italian, Russian and Hebrew have 12 color terms – in the case of Russian, there are distinct lexical items sinii and goluboi which are said to correspond to English "dark blue" and "light blue". The English "basic color terms" are black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple, and grey.

You probably know of the existence of many more single word color terms, for example teal, mauve, puce, tan, beige, fuchsia, indigo, magenta, violet, scarlet. Today I learned that there is also a color "viridian", which seems green to me. These are, apparently, "non-basic" terms. A second factor behind "basic" color terms is that these are colors distinctions that are (widely) agreed on by speakers of the language, though I am skeptical about using "agreement" to exclude many of the above additional colors. If we extend the colors of interest to all single-word color distinctions, the leading candidates for "most color terms in the world" are English and French. Also note that most of those add-on terms are the same in English and French – we borrowed a number of color terms from French.

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