The human eye can perceive millions of different colors, but the number of categories human language of color is much smaller. Some languages use as few as three color categories (words corresponding to black, white, and red), while the languages of industrialized cultures use up to 10 or 12 categories.

In a new study, MIT cognitive scientists have found that language of color tend to divide the “warm” part of the color spectrum into more color words, such as orange, yellow, and red, compared to the “cooler” regions, which include blue and green.

This pattern, which they found across more than 100 languages, may reflect the fact that most objects that stand out in a scene are warm-colored, while cooler colors such as green and blue tend to be found in backgrounds, the researchers say.

The researchers then compared their results to data from the World Color Survey, which performed essentially the same task for 110 languages around the world, all spoken by non-industrialized societies. Across all of these languages, the researchers found the same pattern.
This reflects the fact that while the warm colors and cool colors occupy a similar amount of space in a chart of the 80 colors used in the test, most languages divide the warmer regions into more color words than the cooler regions. Therefore, there are many more color chips that most people would call “blue” than there are chips that people would define as “yellow” or “red.”