How Color Vocabularies Evolved Around the World

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The language of color doesn't always translate—literally. A bird that looks dark green to an observer raised in one part of the world may look black to someone who belongs to a different culture. This isn’t because our eyes work differently—it comes down to the way language impacts our perception.

English has 11 basic color categories, but this isn’t standard across all languages. Some have more. Japanese, for example, distinguishes light blue and dark blue as two distinct colors. Some have significantly less: People who speak Wobé identify all hues as either light, dark, or red. When and why some colors are designated with their own terms may seem random, but anthropologists have found that the evolution of color words follows a pattern around the world.

The smallest color vocabularies, like the one used in Wobé, always use the same three colors as their main umbrellas. Languages with a few more color words usually recognize blue, green, and yellow as separate shades. From there, secondary colors like purple and orange are added to the lexicon. For a deeper look at how languages evolve to describe color, check out the video from Vox below.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
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If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

Guess Which Language These Words Likely Originated In

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