Focal Colors

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A focal color is a shade of a certain color category that represents the best example of this category. Even speakers from different language communities recognize these focal colors to be the perceptually salient and to be the best representative of a particular color category. Such commonly recognized shades are red, green, blue, yellow, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Focal colors are determined by particular criteria. This theory was proved by the anthropologist Brent Berlin and the linguist Paul Kay in 1969 and further developed by Eleanor Rosch in 1972. The emergence of focal colors is part of the linguistic color debate and opposes the Sapir-Whorfian Relativist Hypothesis. Focal colors became the corner stone of the prototype theory of linguistic categorization.

Color Perception

Color is the psychological interpretation of retinal and neuronal perception of reflected visible light. Human beings are able to differentiate between 7,500,000 color shades (Brown/Lenneberg 1954: 457). Since there are so many different colors we perceive color as a continuum in a three-dimensional space. One dimension is produced by hue, which is the perception of different wavelengths; another one is brightness, which is based on the reflectivity of a surface; and, finally, saturation, which is the perception of one dominant wavelength (Payne 2006: 605). Although there are no visible borders in the color continuum, people distinguish between certain colors. Moreover, color terms are part of every language in the world, but they all categorize them differently. Therefore, color terms provide information about human thinking and acting and form a suitable starting point for modern research on categorization.

Relativist Theory

In the 20th century a debate arose that was concerned with the categorization of colors. Basically, a color term is the signifier of Saussure’s linguistic sign which denotes a color concept or the signified, respectively. As already mentioned, different language communities categorize colors in different ways. This means that two individuals from two different cultures might perceive the color term red as a different combination of hue, brightness and saturation or they would refer to the same color with two different terms. Therefore, anthropologists in the 1950’s claimed that categorization of color is arbitrary, i.e. that it is based on conventions and that it is not innate. They said that such categorization is dependent on the cultural and social background of each speech community. This thesis is also called Sapir-Whorfian-Hypothesis (Whorf 1956). Benjamin Lee Whorf investigated on the basis of the linguistic knowledge of his teacher, Edward Sapir, the language of the Hopi people inter alia and found out that they perceive time and space differently from people in North America (Bußmann 2002: 577). Later Brown and Lenneberg (1954) found out that color names differed enormously between languages and bridged the gap between Whorf’s thesis and linguistic categorization, especially color terms.

Universalist Theory

The Whorfian view was strongly opposed by Berlin and Kay in 1969. They carried out a cross-linguistic study in which they wanted to prove the relativist thesis as wrong. They claimed that there are specific reference points in the color continuum that we use for orientation. These reference points, called ‘foci’, are universal and not culture-specific. In fact, these ‘foci’ underlie a particular hierarchy. Hence, they maintained that color categorization is not arbitrary but innate. Their study and the one by Eleanor Rosch one contributed the most important aspects to the universalist theory. They are presented in the following.

Empirical Research of Berlin & Kay

Berlin and Kay (henceforth: BK) investigated 98 languages. They sampled 20 languages in oral tests and supplemented the remaining 78 languages by consulting dictionaries and field worker’s notes (BK 1969: 23). In order to achieve a representative result they worked with the so called Munsell Color chips, which had also been used by Lenneberg and Roberts. These are standardized chips which represent the three dimensions relevant to our perception of color (hue, brightness, saturation). This color system consists of 329 color chips. 320 chips represent 40 different hues each divided into eight different levels of brightness. The remaining nine chips represent black, white, and seven levels of gray. The participants of the study were asked to pick out

(1) “All those chips which they would under any condition call x.

(2) The best, most typical examples of x. (BK 1969: 7)”

The color term x has to consist of a single word (i.e. not green-blue) and must be familiar to most speakers of this language. Furthermore, the term is not borrowed from another language such as pink in German and it should not be restricted in its reference such as blond. Color chips of x that fulfilled these criteria were called basic color terms (henceforth BCT). Berlin and Kay found out that people focus certain points in the color continuum as a kind of orientation (BK 1969: 13). Such reference points or ‘best examples’ were called ‘foci’. Focal colors had not only been detected in English but also in the remaining 19 languages. Therefore, focal colors are not only shared by one speech community but also by speakers of different languages. In fact, BK found out that when a language has color terms that correspond the English terms, the focal points will be in same area. Hence, color categorization is not arbitrary but is rooted in focal colors. Thus, “whenever we speak of colour categories, we refer to the foci of categories rather than to their boundaries or total area, except when specifically stating otherwise” (BK 1969: 13). BK showed that color terms have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples. When it comes down to best example of a category, people basically share the same concept. With regard to BCT they identified two to eleven basic terms across languages except for Russian and Hungarian. English for example has red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, gray, black and white. For further details, see also basic color terms.

Empirical Research of Rosch

The findings of BK raised a lot of questions. The psychologist Eleanor Rosch (nee Heider) tried to explain the psychological background of focal colors and concentrated on the three most basic cognitive processes: selection of stimuli; identification and classification; as well as naming. In order to conduct her study, she needed subjects who hardly knew color terms and related to color categories as rare as possible (Rosch 1973: 331). Such informants could get a controlled input stimuli for learning new color categories. Therefore, she worked with pre-school children and speakers of the Dugum Dani language from Papua New Guinea. The Dani people have a two-term color system (mili and mola) which is based on hue and on brightness (Heider 1972: 460). The English equivalents for those two are light and dark. In order to attach her results to BK’s study, she also used the Munsell Color Chips. She first examined if focal colors are perceptually salient. In her first experiment, she tested the stimulus (arousal of attention) with 3-year-old children. The subjects were asked to pick out any color they like. The focal chips yellow, orange and green seemed to be most attractive to them. The results for the other five hues were also statistically significant (Ungerer/Schmid 2006: 12). Hence, 3-year-old children pick out focal chips more often than non-focal ones. The second experiment was concerned with identification and classification. 4-year-old children were given focal and non-focal chips in random order and were asked to pick out and point to the same color in the Munsell color array. Focal chips were matched more accurately than non-focal ones.
The last two experiments were conducted with the Dani as informants and an American control group. In one experiment short-term memory was tested. Rosch presented the Dani eight focal and non-focal chips for five seconds each. Then, the subjects had to point to the color they had just seen in the color array. Focal chips were matched more precisely. Thus, focal colors are remembered more accurately in short-term memory than non-focal ones. However, the American control group matched the colors more precisely than the Dani. This might not be surprising since the Dani have little practice in memorizing such colors; for example they do not see red, yellow, green traffic lights every day (Taylor 2003: 10). In her last experiment she tested long-term memory. Since the Dani speakers only know two basic color terms, she taught them 16 new color terms in random order. The names she used were those of Dani clans. The subjects were able to produce the names of focal colors more rapidly than those of non-focal ones. Hence, names of focal colors are acquired more rapidly than non-focal ones.
Rosch was able to find out that focal colors are more perceptually salient than non-focal ones (Rosch 1973: 348). This cognitive salience is probably not anchored in language but reflects certain physiological aspects of men’s perspective mechanisms. Later, she coined the term ‘prototype’ instead of ‘focal’. She also conducted a study to prove that prototypes are not only restricted to color categorization but can also be applied to shapes (Ungerer/Schmid 2006: 15).


BK were able to verify that different languages do not separate colors from each other arbitrarily, but they use so called focal colors as reference points (Bußmann 2002:213). Rosch then proved that focal colors have a special cognitive status. Focal colors paved the way for prototype theory (Ungerer/Schmid 2006:9) since Rosch transferred her findings to the domain of shapes. In other investigations she found out that each linguistic category has better or less good examples and, therefore, eliminated the classical approach to linguistic categorization. Claims of the relativity theory were already revised when the study of BK had been published. BK’s and Rosch’s most important contribution might be that of perception (Payne 2006: 609). Linguists paid more attention to cognitive perception when dealing with categorization. As already mentioned the study by Berlin and Kay motivated other anthropologists to investigate hundreds of other languages in e.g. World Color Survey (Kay, forthcoming) and Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages (Maclaury 1996).


Rosch finding’s that prototypes are rooted in perception accounts for salient focal colors. Whether we see a color or not is determined by neural responses meaning that cells respond to a certain colors or not. Such central color categories are for example red, yellow, green, blue, black, and white. Hence, basic color terms like purple or pink do not have a salient focus but are regarded as salient focal colors (Payne 2006: 609). In terms of BK, one can define a focus of a color category but defining its boundaries is still controversial, although there must be a boundary somewhere for example between yellow and red (Payne 2006: 608). Due to these problems some claims of the universalist theory have also been revised since the 1970’s. This concerns most of all basic color terms. Research about focal colors gave way to prototype research. Consequently, interest in focal colors almost disappeared or is included in writings about BCT’s.

See also


- Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay (1969). Basic color terms: their universality and evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

- Brown, R. W., & Lenneberg, E. H. (1954). “A study in language and cognition.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49: 454-462.

- Bußmann, Hadumod (2002). “Farbbezeichnungen.” In: Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. 3rd ed. Ed. Hadumod Bußmann. Stuttgart. 213.

- Bußmann, Hadumod (2002). “Sapir-Whorf-Hypothese.” In: Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. 3rd ed. Ed. Hadumod Bußmann. Stuttgart. 577.

- Heider, Eleanor (1971). “’Focal’ Color Areas and the Development of Color Names” Developmental Psychology 4: 447-455.

- Heider, Eleanor (1972). “Probabilities, Sampling, and Ethnographic Method: The Case of Dani Color Names.” MAN 7, 1972. 448-466.

- Kay, Paul (1999). Color. <> (11.03.2010, 10:36)

- Payne, D.L. (2006). “Color Terms.” In: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2nd ed. Ed. Keith Brown. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 605-610.

- Rosch, Eleanor (1973). “Natural Categories.” Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-350.

- Taylor, David (2003). Linguistic Categorization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- Ungerer, F. & H.-J. Schmid (2006). An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. London: Longman.

- Whorf, B.L. (1956). “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behaviour to Language” Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writing of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Ed. J.B. Caroll. Cambridge. 134-159.

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