“Somewhere over the rainbow: distribution of color terms and color classification in Ostwald´s color space English, Swedish and Slovene”

Department of English
Bachelor/Magister Degree Project
English Linguistics
Spring 2016
Supervisor: Francesco Ursini, Mikko Höglund

A comparative and cognitive linguistic research of the basic color terms in English, Swedish and Slovene – a summary

Color is universal trait of cognition and perception which attracts the attention of researchers from various domains, e.g. neurophysiologist, psychologists, quantum physics, linguists, anthropologists and artist. Science from this field show us that color is cross-cultural communication and essential in human perception not only on its visual level but as well it’s on linguistical level of everyday life. Hardin and Maffi well known cognitive linguistic researches have shown us that metalanguage in the vocabulary of color exist.

This study is based on domain of Berlin and Kay “BCT Their Universality and Evolution” and different approaches that cognitive linguists have established over the years of research of BCT (basic color terms), from which is represented research distribution of color terms and color classification in Ostwald´s color space in English, Swedish and Slovene.

The research data, which was collected among different (precisely 60) artists from English, Slovene and Swedish speaking part of the world and art professions from all three different groups. The result of the research questionnaire from candidates pointing out on a Munsell color chart which consists of 115 color chips of 329 hues, demonstrates that English language has influence on naming BCT on other European languages, especially at educating art professionals on academical level. There are some inter -language universalities on some cases of naming basic color even between Slovene and Swedish as well as between English and Swedish. Reading through theoretical review is inevitable to recognize the importance of the Isaac Newton naming colors in rainbow and Albert H. Munsell placing colors in his solid and determine 329 hues on English language.

With further research in this field it became clear that the linguistic thesis in the colorful field of cognitive linguistic was necessary to conjunct with other linguistic fields as semantic of English color terms. A lot more was discovered during this research. Hardin C.L., Maffi L. in their research (1997) publication; Color categories in thought and language, go further than Paul Kay and Brent Berlin basic color theory and are looking for arbitrariness how individual language divide space and have “capacity to shape the perception of its speakers” (Introduction p.1). It is an overall aim to touch the neurophysiology of color vision and the history of evolution of the color naming, which was researched and categorized by physics, such as Isaac Newton and then Johan Wolfgang Goethe, who opposed to Newton´s scientifically objective analysis with a subjective philosophical approach to the perception of color. Linguists and scientists rather use samples of color space before spectral color, which fall in the domain of Art Color Theory and the philosophical subjective approach.

Wilhelm Ostwald, who developed color solids Ostwald Color System, and Albert H. Munsell, who wrote “A Grammar of Color” prepared the ground for the modern scientific linguistic research of color terms.
Paul Kay and Brent Berlin were looking for common color terms, which could be translated from the Tahiti language in English and further in any world language. In the process to establish a system for Basic Color Terms (BCT) they came across Ostwald and Munsell color solids three-dimensional geometrical bodies. After wide research on color terms this has been published by Paul Kay and Brent Berlin “Basic color terms (BCT). Their “Universality and Evolution (1969)”, came into consideration in the research and studies of Basic Color Terms in linguistic semantic and cognitive linguistic. Approximately 3000 works has been published since the middle of the 18th century. Most of them were written in the English language and used in the field of BCT theory as meta-language to use English as the lingua franca.
Nevertheless, there are more research enquiries done in Italian, French, Russian and even in Slovene language.

Swedish linguist Anders Steinvall´s doctoral thesis has to be mentioned in this research as he points out that there is probably nothing left in the field of research of English color terms.
The color term research primarily belongs to the field of cognitive linguistic and anthropological science. Such interdisciplinary research requests moving freely between the fields, when discussing usage and models of color term, the main theoretical framework still remains cognitive linguistic and semantics.
In further discussions and researches with researcher Mari Uusküla it was found out that no linguist before has researched comprehension of BCT among professional education artists, architects, designers, photographs and art teachers in their native language, for further research to find out the influence of English on the color terms. This is going to give the research new perspective in this field.
As already mentioned before the BCT research by Paul Kay and Brent Berlin using English as a research language is going to be considered. Therefore, the survey will show the influence English color terms have on two other European languages, on Swedish and Slovene.

Berlin and Kay formed criteria for research in this field as they separated basic color terms from non-basic color terms. If needed they translated color terms from English to local native language. This is very similar to the undertaken research in this field, where Munsell color´s tokens were used. The aim of this research was not to develop further BCT theory but just to demonstrate new levels of connections in interlanguage and influences of the academic English, where all professional artists have learnt the everyday skills how to distinguish basic color terms from secondary color terms.
The theoretical frames in the research sources excerpt from Anders Steinvall´s doctoral dissertation and Mari Uusküla´s hypothesis, based on recent empirical tests, eg. of the Slavic languages and Hardin C.L., Maffi L. theory from Color categories in thought and language.

The research included the following questions:
What kind of and which linguistical cognitive influence have the English language according to basic color terms (BCT) on other European languages for example Swedish and Slovenian?
Which and what linguistic color stimuli from Munsell color chips were named and defined exactly the same or in an approximately similar color nuances in all of the above-named languages (Slovene, Swedish and English)?

Can interviewee specify color term with the exact linguistic consistency since they are all trained as artist or art teachers or architects regardless of culture?
Only the data for the color naming task was used in this research. The color-aid is based on Munsell color solid which is the cheaper version of the actual Munsell color chips. The color-aid uses 314 colors and was established by color-aid cooperation. The stimuli for the color naming task were 115 colored tiles placed in the color maps. Each tile is 5 cm square and neighboring hue 0,4 cm thick and consists of a pure pigment structure base covered with thick colored papers selected from the color-aid range of colors. Color Aid Corporation uses the modification of Ostwald´s color system, where there are 24 chromatic colors – 6 basic colors: Y – yellow, O – orange, R – red, V – violet, B – blue, G – green and their transition tones e.g. YO – yellow-orange, YOY – yellow-orange-yellow. For every color: each breaks down into four light variants T1-T4, in which the share of tint increases pro rata, and into three dark variants S1-S3, where the role of the black increases. Besides this, some extra-system colors have been used, i.e. Sienna and Rose Red – this naming was not included in my research.

From this research and survey taking all the questions in consideration it can be concluded that the distribution of color terms in one language is not the same as in another one.


  • Berlin B. and Kay P. et al. (1991) publication; BASIC COLOUR TERMS Their Universality and Evolution, Originally published: Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Jones, W.J. et al. (2013) publication; German colour terms: A study in their historical evolution from earliest times to present, John Benjamins Publishing Co., Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Kay P., Brent Berlin, Luisa Maffi, William R Merrifield, and Richard Cook et al.(2009) publication, The World Color Survey, Center for the Study of Language and information Leland Stanford Junior University
  •  Hardin C.L., Maffi L. et al.(1997)publication; Color categories in thought and language, Cambridge University Press
  •  Steinvall A. et al. (2002) English Colour Terms in Context, Institution for modern language Umeå University, publisher; UmU Tryckerier
  •  Uusküla M. ,Personal communication; the title of her lecture was “Somewhere over the rainbow: Color terms in typological and areal linguistic perspective”, Mari Uusküla, on the 27th of February 2014 at the Department for Linguistics of Stockholm University.
  •  Uusküla M. et al. (2006) article; Distribution of colour terms in Ostwald´s colour space in Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Russian and English