I have two questions concerning words for colors, one specific and one general.

First, Beekes in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (p. 181) reconstructs a PIE suffix –no- that forms adjectives. An example is * krs-nó- ‘black’: Skt. kṛṣṇá-, OCS črъnъ *(<čъrsn-) (so Russian черный). Several color terms in Latvian, such as sarkans ‘red’ and dzeltens ‘yellow’ look like they might also fall into this category. Can anyone confirm this?

Now the more general question. How diachronically stable are color terms?

On the one hand, there is an argument for stability. We can broadly distinguish core or basic vocabulary from cultural vocabulary. Introductory historical linguistics textbooks say that core vocabulary tends to be conserved because it is less susceptible to borrowing.* Most languages will include a certain number of color words in their core vocabulary. Simply because they are ‘basic’, we can assume that these color words are fairly conservative. The fact that children learn color words very early also suggests that transmission of these words across generations of speakers is likely to be relatively stable.

On the other hand, I can think of several paths by which color words might be replaced over time. Colors may be associated with certain nouns (like blue with the sky), which might come to be used in place of the color (like ‘salmon’ as a color). Or some factor of material culture, e.g. how dyes are produced, might influence the color word used. Examples here might include Chinese characters for colors with the grass, bamboo or silk radicals (藍, 紅), which seem to reflect a physical source like the indigo plant.**

I am aware of Berlin and Kay’s study of color systems, and that seems to be mainly synchronic. To what extent can we reconstruct color terms for PIE?

*cf. Terry Crowley, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (2nd ed. 1992), p. 153: “Languages are more likely to copy words from other languages in the area of cultural vocabulary, rather than core vocabulary. Core vocabulary is basically vocabulary that we can expect to find in all human languages.” Five basic color words (red, green, yellow, black and white) were included on Swadesh’s 100-word list.

**There is an additional consideration: color words may have other meanings besides that of color, as in Chinese 青 qīng, which can mean ‘young’ in addition to green or blue. In extreme cases like Hanunoo, these additional semantic dimensions can accrue and throw into question the existence of a color system as such. See the discussion of universalist vs. relativist approaches to color terminology in Chapter 7 of William Foley’s Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction (1997).

  • 1
    Actually this question was prompted by a recent Chinese SE discussion, interesting but inconclusive, about the Chinese words for green and blue. It’s here: chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/6832/…
    – neubau
    May 14, 2014 at 5:03
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    @hippietrail, strictly speaking, Japanese has had みどり for a very long time, but the use of it for the color is more recent. Also, when traffic lights were first introduced in Japan, they were legally referred to as 緑色信号, but people seemed to prefer 青信号, so that name took over. Your comment might lead people to believe that the color みどり is newer than traffic lights, which is not the case.
    – dainichi
    May 14, 2014 at 11:36
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    I would assume that color terms are very unstable because of the nature of the color domain, which has no clear internal boundaries. It should be very easy for a term to shift gradually from meaning e.g. "blue" to "turquoise" to "green" to "yellow".
    – TKR
    May 14, 2014 at 21:09
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    @hippietrail That's true, but given that that neurological fact doesn't stop very many languages from conflating "blue" and "green", I don't know to what extent it might constrain semantic change in the color domain, if at all.
    – TKR
    May 15, 2014 at 3:21
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    not exactly what you asked for but still relevant - Kay 1975 www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Var&Change.pdf
    – Alex B.
    May 16, 2014 at 2:08

3 Answers 3


At least for Romance and Germanic languages, the colour terms seem to be less stable than other parts of the core vocabulary. Examples:

  • Latin flavius and english blue are cognates, but flavius means yellow. Speculation: This particular semantic shift may be explained by the chemical details of dying blue with woad or indigo
  • Modern Romance languages have replaced the original Latin words for blue with newer borrowings (French bleu, Italian azzurro)
  • Likewise, the old Latin term albus "white" was replaced by loans in most modern Romance languages (bianco in Italian, blanc/blanche in French)
  • Actually, the English word black is cognate to blanche/blanc. German uses schwarz "black"
  • (EDIT) The German cognate of black is not a colour term at all, it is blank "pure, sheer"

I don't know of empirical diachronic data off the top of my head, but some people have investigated the evolution of color lexicons with simulations. See these papers:

Loreto, Vittorio; Mukherjee, Animesh; Tria, Francesca On the origin of the hierarchy of color names (Article) PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (PNAS), 2012.

Baronchelli, Andrea; Gong, Tao; Puglisi, Andrea; Loreto, Vittorio Modeling the emergence of universality in color naming patterns (Article) PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (PNAS), 107 pp. 2403–2407, 2010.

EDIT: Commenter below is right that I should say a little something about these papers. I'm just pulling key points from their abstracts:

Loreto et al:

We found that the time needed for a [simulated] population to reach consensus on a color name depends on the region of the visible color spectrum. If color spectrum regions are ranked according to this criterion, a hierarchy with [red, (magenta)-red], [violet], [green/yellow], [blue], [orange], and [cyan], appearing in this order, is recovered, featuring an excellent quantitative agreement with the empirical observations of the [World Color Survey].

Baronchelli et al:

We find that a simple perceptual constraint shared by all humans, namely the human Just Noticeable Difference (JND), is sufficient to trigger the emergence of universal patterns that unconstrained cultural interaction fails to produce. We test the results of our experiment against real data by performing the same statistical analysis proposed to quantify the universal tendencies shown in the WCS [Kay P & Regier T. (2003) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100: 9085-9089], and obtain an excellent quantitative agreement.

  • Please consider adding some key points from the linked papers into your answer. Jan 13, 2016 at 12:59

I think, medium. Taking for instance, Indo-European family, there are a lot of color words that changed meaning and also a lot of invented words, but some words are surprisingly stable.

For instance,

  • English, Russian, Greek, Italian, all have a word for at least a dye of red color inherited from the same PIE word e̯roudhros meaning "red".

  • English, Russian, Italian(possibly from Germanic), Greek, Persian all have the word for yellow or green inherited from the same PIE word, ĝhelo̯u̯os meaning "yellow-green".

  • English, Russian (borrowed from Indo-Iranian), Italian (borrowed from Germanic), Greek, Persian all have the word for brown originated from PIE bhrunos "brown"

But the words for blue or grey are not shared at all. This may indicate that the proto-language simply had no word for these colors.

  • Actually, *gholtos only seems to be the ancestor of the Balto-Slavic word for "gold." Other language groups used the same root, but with different suffixes, to make their words meaning "yellow." Wiktionary lists the PIE root as *ǵʰelh₃, while the OED entry on English"yellow" says it is from PIE *ghelwo- with the root ghol- : ghel- : ghl-. Jan 14, 2016 at 6:29
  • @sumelic the precise form of this word in PIE is unclear.
    – Anixx
    Jan 14, 2016 at 6:53
  • Aren't Italian bruno "brown" and French brun "brown" borrowings from Germanic languages? And what are the Russian and Greek terms you are referring to (I found Russian koríčnevy and Greek καστανό as words for "brown")? Jan 14, 2016 at 7:51
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    And for the terms of Green/Yellow: How is Italian giallo "yellow" connected to PIE ĝhelo̯u̯os? The natural reflex of this root is Latin *helvus, not galbinus which developped into giallo. Jan 14, 2016 at 8:01
  • @jknappen Russian бурый means brown lingvo-online.ru/ru/Translate/en-ru/… . Italian giallo is from Latin galbinus, extended from galbus. Bruno is indeed a borrowing from Germanic.
    – Anixx
    Jan 14, 2016 at 8:18

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