Color Naming Reflects Both Perceptual Structure and Communicative Need

Top Cogn Sci. 2019 Jan;11(1):207-219. doi: 10.1111/tops.12395. Epub 2018 Nov 20.


Gibson et al. () argued that color naming is shaped by patterns of communicative need. In support of this claim, they showed that color naming systems across languages support more precise communication about warm colors than cool colors, and that the objects we talk about tend to be warm-colored rather than cool-colored. Here, we present new analyses that alter this picture. We show that greater communicative precision for warm than for cool colors, and greater communicative need, may both be explained by perceptual structure. However, using an information-theoretic analysis, we also show that color naming across languages bears signs of communicative need beyond what would be predicted by perceptual structure alone. We conclude that color naming is shaped both by perceptual structure, as has traditionally been argued, and by patterns of communicative need, as argued by Gibson et al. -although for reasons other than those they advanced.

Keywords: Categorization; Color naming; Information theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Color Perception*
  • Communication*
  • Concept Formation*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Models, Theoretical*