Berlin & Kay’s theory of color universals and Linguistics Relativity: The case of Hmong language

Author: Chi Vu Quynh Pham (Faculty of Linguistics, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi)
Speaker: Chi Vu Quynh Pham
Topic: Cognitive Anthropology and language
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 Poster Session


Linguistic relativity, one of the aspects of Cognitive Anthropology and language, holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Based on this point of view, a 1969 study by Berlin and Kay has shifted the culturally relative interpretation towards the belief in color universals for observed diversity of color terms across languages.

The color universals affirmation has been sustained by many field studies in about 130 languages with findings predominantly consistent with Berlin & Kay’s theory. However, there has always remained the feasibility that data from unstudied ones might reveal some exceptions to invalidate the theory’s claim to universality. Based on that fact, this research aimed, firstly, to test the theory on a language from the Miao-Yao family – a Hmong language spoken in Hau Thao commune (Sapa, Lao Cai, Vietnam); secondly, to investigate the cultural influences on non-basic color terms in this language.

With the aim of testing Berlin and Kay’s theory against Hmong language, the research was conducted with two experiments: Basic color term listing and Color naming. Two groups of Hmong language speakers took part in those experiments: the child group and the adult group.

The results from the experiments suggested that dub (black), dawb (white), lab (red & pink), ntsuab (‘grue’), daaj (yellow & orange) have the strongest claim to basic status. Hmong therefore corresponds perfectly with Berlin & Kay’s stage IV of color evaluation. Hmong langugage has a few basic color terms, which means that the reference for each color term would encompass a correspondingly larger region of color space – a megacategory, so the addition of each new basic color term should be understood as breaking up a megacategory into smaller categories. It appears that Hmong has only borrowed color terms for the “missing” universals, namely yem laaj (purple), thsauv (grey & brown), ntsuab ntuj (blue), ntsuab plooj ntoo (green).

The result has shed a light on new aspects never been exposed –considering the way to name colors as the reason to explain not only Hmong indigenous culture but the cultural interaction between Hmong and other minority groups as well.

Further work of this research can lie in Linguistics and Culture (The way Hmong non-basic color terms reflect its culture) and Geolinguistics (The geographical distribution of Hmong non-basic color terms in different Hmong speaking communities).