LINGUIST List 15.1174

Sat Apr 10 2004

Sum: Berlin & Kay & ESL for children

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, Sum: 2LA and the Berlin/Kay hierarchy of colour terms

Message 1: Sum: 2LA and the Berlin/Kay hierarchy of colour terms

Date: Wed, 7 Apr 2004 16:16:50 +0800
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Sum: 2LA and the Berlin/Kay hierarchy of colour terms

Dear Colleagues,

A little over a month ago, i posted a query (Linguist 15.752) on
behalf of one of my students about children in ESL mastering words for
colours relatively high on the Berlin/Kay hierarchy -- `black',
`white', `red' -- more efficiently/easier/earlier than words for
colours farther down the hierarchy. I apologize for taking so long to
post a summary of responses; i can only plead the pressures of a heavy
course load, exams, textbook-writing, etc.

First of all, i'd like to thank the following people for responding:

John Archibald <>

Laura Callahan <>

Greville G. Corbett <>


Joseph Hilferty <>

Mike Maxwell <>

Anne-Marie Langvall Olsen <>

Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips <>

Xin Wang (Margaret) <>

Lynell Williams <>

Several respondents reported anecdotal evidence corroborating my
student's experience. Some wondered (rhetorically) whether
first-language learners display similar discrepancies with regard to
relative ease of acquisition of colour-terms in their `native'
languages. A couple of respondents offered intriguing hypotheses to
the effect that the Berlin/Kay hierarchy correlates with frequency of
usage of the relevant terms in a particular language, which may make
it easier for learners to master the terms for the colours relatively
high on the hierarchy (since those terms are used more often) than
those for colours farther down, to which they presumably would be
exposed fairly rarely.

I received the following references to literature:

Ian R. L. Davies, Greville G. Corbett, Harry McGurk & Catriona
MacDermid. 1998. `A developmental study of the acquisition of Russian
colour terms.' Journal of Child Language 25:395-417.

E. Bartlett. 1978. `The acquisition of the meaning of color terms: a
study of lexical development' in R. Campbell & P. Smith, eds. Recent
Advances in the Psychology of Language.

Nicola J. Pitchford & Kathy T. Mullen. 2002. `Is the acquisition of
basic-colour terms in young children constrained?' Perception
31:1349-1370. (Electronic version available.)

In addition, one respondent mentioned Eleanor Rosch' study of the
acquisition of colour vocabulary among the Dani of New Guinea
(reported in Rosch 1973, `Natural Categories', Cognitive Psychology
4:328-50). As summarized in George Lakoff's _Women, Fire, and
Dangerous Things_ (pp. 310-11), what Rosch found was that, while the
Dani have only two basic colour words in their own language, they are
`readily able to learn and remember arbitrary names for what Berlin &
Kay called "focal colors" ... [but] showed difficulty learning and
remembering names for nonfocal colours.' (As Lakoff notes, these data
are compatible with a variety of interpretations with regard to the
cognitive categories of the Dani people.)

Again, thanks to all respondents!



Steven Schaufele (Ph.D.)
Assoc. Prof. (Linguistics)
English Dept., Soochow University
Waishuanghsi Campus
Shihlin District
Taipei 11102, Taiwan
(02)2881-9471 ext. 6504 (O)
(02)2877-1090 (H)
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