The human eye can perceive millions of different colors, but the number of categories human languages use to group those colors is much smaller. Some languages use as few as three color categories (words corresponding to black, white, and red), while the languages of industrialized cultures use up to 10 or 12 categories.
In a new study, MIT cognitive scientists have found that languages tend to divide the “warm” part of the color spectrum into more color words, such as orange, yellow, and red, compared to the “cooler” regions, which include blue and green. This pattern, which they found across more than 100 languages, may reflect the fact that most objects that stand out in a scene are warm-colored, while cooler colors such as green and blue tend to be found in backgrounds, the researchers say.
This leads to more consistent labeling of warmer colors by different speakers of the same language, the researchers found.
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