Japanese Color Terms and Universal Problems in Language, Culture, and Thought

Author: James Stanlaw (Illinois State University)
Speaker: James Stanlaw
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


This paper examines how Japanese color terms are uniquely situated to show how language, culture and thought articulate to “create” color experiences and categories. Color continues to be a contentious issue among anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, and psychologists. Is it only a subjective experience? Does everyone “see” the same colors? And what effect does culture or language have on color naming or perception?

The standard model of color nomenclature was proposed by Berlin and Kay in 1969 and has been supported by several hundred field studies over the past forty years. Indeed, the Berlin and Kay model has been the starting point for most current work involving color. In brief, Berlin and Kay demonstrated three cross-cultural/cross-linguistic universals. First, colors are not named arbitrarily, but instead are highly constrained. Second, languages develop or evolve new color terms in a consistent prescribed order. Third, certain “focal” colors hold privileged positions cross-culturally, and are more easily noticed and remembered (even if the language does not have a term for that color category). However, I suggest Japanese offers serious challenges to each of these claims.

Japanese was actually one of the twenty languages Berlin and Kay used in their original study. However, in their attempt to make an overarching universalist argument, several critical aspects of the Japanese language went unnoticed. Here I will give an overview of eight problems the Japanese languages poses to standard model: (1). a definition of what a “basic” color term can be when non-western scripts are present; (2.) how language contact and loanwords (especially from English) affects the universality of color terms; (3.) what the mechanism might be to motivate the evolutionary sequence (besides technology, as proposed by Berlin and Kay); (4) how Japanese kon (“dark blue”) might be an addition color category, beyond the dozen in the standard model; (5) how might a color vocabulary develop in isolation; (6) how an historical “blue-green” term becomes manifested today, socially and culturally; (7) how the special place of murasaki (‘purple”) historically has contradicted the evolutionary sequence; (8) what a possible Ainu “green-yellow” category might contribute to color nomenclature theory. Critics of the standard model have claimed it to have a western bias—and its findings a residual of colonialism. The Japanese case, however, offers challenges of a different sort, and suggests that Asian languages and Asian scripts may offer new theoretical insights into universal color nomenclature theory.

Keywords: Japan, color terms, language contact, Berlin and Kay, universalism and particularism