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Journal Article

Color technology is not necessary for rich and efficient color language


Levinson,  Stephen C.
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Radboud University Nijmegen, External Organizations;
Emeriti, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Wnuk, E., Verkerk, A., Levinson, S. C., & Majid, A. (2022). Color technology is not necessary for rich and efficient color language. Cognition, 229: 105223. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105223.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000B-0683-A
The evolution of basic color terms in language is claimed to be stimulated by technological development, involving technological control of color or exposure to artificially colored objects. Accordingly, technologically “simple” non-industrialized societies are expected to have poor lexicalization of color, i.e., only rudimentary lexica of 2, 3 or 4 basic color terms, with unnamed gaps in the color space. While it may indeed be the case that technology stimulates lexical growth of color terms, it is sometimes considered a sine qua non for color salience and lexicalization. We provide novel evidence that this overlooks the role of the natural environment, and people's engagement with the environment, in the evolution of color vocabulary. We introduce the Maniq—nomadic hunter-gatherers with no color technology, but who have a basic color lexicon of 6 or 7 terms, thus of the same order as large languages like Vietnamese and Hausa, and who routinely talk about color. We examine color language in Maniq and compare it to available data in other languages to demonstrate it has remarkably high consensual color term usage, on a par with English, and high coding efficiency. This shows colors can matter even for non-industrialized societies, suggesting technology is not necessary for color language. Instead, factors such as perceptual prominence of color in natural environments, its practical usefulness across communicative contexts, and symbolic importance can all stimulate elaboration of color language.