In 1969, anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay published Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. In this work, the authors forcefully argued against the sweeping cultural relativism of the day by showing that languages, despite time and distance, almost universally possess certain color words. Contrary to many critics’ assertions, they did understand that they were not dealing in strict universal terms. Nevertheless, they tried to show that all languages had at least two color words, roughly corresponding to lightness and darkness (or white and black). If a language had three color words, the third word would be red. If four, it would green or yellow, and the fifth would be the missing complement. This would go on for “seven stages” and up to 11 basic color words. Over time, Berlin and Kay weakened the strength of the results though the spine remained. An enormous amount of controversy has been generated as a result of this book.

There have been some powerful criticisms of this work. First, as Geoffrey Sampson recounts in The Language Instinct Debate, there are some rather extraordinary methodological faults:

Berlin and Kay list four basic colour terms for Homeric Greek, including the word glaukos. Standard reference works, such as Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, say that glaukos at the Homeric period meant something like ‘gleaming’, with no colour reference, and in later Ancient Greek meant something like what its English derivate ‘glaucous’ means now: roughly bluish-greenish-grey. But Berlin and Kay’s theory requires a term for ‘black’ in a four-term system, so they translate glaukos as ‘black’. Ancient Greek had a standard word for ‘black’: melas, the root of ‘melancholy’ (black bile) and ‘Melanesia’ (black islands) — but melas melas did not appear in Berlin and Kay’s list of four Homeric basic colour terms.

Basically the problem is that Berlin and Kay got their data from students and apparently didn’t check it very well. Another set of dissents can be generalized as follows: Berlin and Kay did not succeed in demonstrating a universal word order for color words and categories because they did not analyze the languages correctly. Either the color terms they thought corresponded to their basic, Western-centric terms did not, or….. etc. etc. In my opinion, it does seem rather clear that this is not, in fact, a universal. Despite the criticisms, other studies have confirmed the general results, and so it seems that Berlin and Kay demonstrated a very powerful tendency. But this is just as interesting as if it were in fact a universal because the reasons underlying this powerful tendency are a matter of objective reason. Therefore, the attack on relativism has held until the modern day. Additionally, if my Google searches are correct, a World Color Survey data set has been produced from which other researchers have replicated substantially Berlin and Kay’s findings.

Although a wealth of publications have discussed this problem, and I have not read all of them, I think that an economics approach may be helpful for explaining this result. ( I did read one publication that suggested a theory similar to what I will suggest. ) And, in any event, what do I mean by an economics approach? I mean that I wish to create an equation or series of equations, with several variables representing factors that influence the human demand for color terms, that explains this pattern and offers suggestions for why deviations may occur. The equations are based less on absolute numerical values and more on logic. One example of how logic has been brought to bear on important problems by economists can be found in Gary S. Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination (a copy of which I have apparently stolen from my friend Bob). To show one simple example:

By using the concept of a discrimination coefficient (DC), it is possible to give a definition of a “taste for discrimination” that is parallel for different factors of production, employers, and consumers. The money costs of a transaction do not always completely measure net costs, and a DC acts as a bridge between money and net costs. Suppose an employer were faced with the money wage rate π of a particular factor; he is assumed to act as if π(1+di) were the net wage rate, with di as his DC against this factor. An employee, offered them oney wage rate πj for working with this factor, acts as if πj(1-dj) were the net wage rate, with dj as his DC against this factor. […]

Suppose there are two groups, designated by W and N, with members of W being perfect substitutes in production for members of N. In the absence of discrimination and nepotism and if the labor market were perfectly competitive, the equilibrium wage rate of W would equal that of N. Discrimination could cause these wage rates to differ; the market discrimination coefficient between W and N (this will be abbreviated to “MDC”) is defined as the proportional difference between these wage rates. If πw and πn represent the equilibrium wage rates of W and N, respectively, then MDC = (πw – πn)/πn.

Amazingly, Becker first published his work in 1957 (hence N standing in for ‘Negro’), but it still represents a profound attempt to modernize sociology, which is largely and almost staggeringly useless today. Just so, using such models that may be tested and for which data may be gathered may be useful for anthropology. For an amateurish approach in the context of color words, stay tuned for Part II.