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Why there are so few words for blue

Color pigments. Photo: Anka100 / iStock

Some languages have a word for green, others don't. Nearly all have one for red. A new study across 100 different languages suggests whether colors are assigned a name depends on how useful the label is.

  • Red, yellow, orange and other "warmer" colors are easier to precisely communicate than "cooler" ones like green and blue because there tend to be more words for warmer colors. That's because warm colors tend to describe objects whereas cool ones more often apply to backgrounds.
  • The researchers also found being able to name an object a specific color is more useful in industrialized parts of the world where an object's color can be what distinguishes it from others (i.e. green shirt v. blue shirt).

Why it matters: While the researchers at MIT, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Rochester didn't resolve the question of whether color is universal or shaped by individual cultures, their research suggests across languages the naming colors depends on how useful it is in communicating.