Focal colors across languages are representative members of color categories

Joshua T. Abbott, Thomas L. Griffiths, Terry Regier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Focal colors, or best examples of color terms, have traditionally been viewed as either the underlying source of cross-language color-naming universals or derived from category boundaries that vary widely across languages. Existing data partially support and partially challenge each of these views. Here, we advance a position that synthesizes aspects of these two traditionally opposed positions and accounts for existing data. We do so by linking this debate to more general principles. We show that best examples of named color categories across 112 languages are well-predicted from category extensions by a statistical model of how representative a sample is of a distribution, independently shown to account for patterns of human inference. This model accounts for both universal tendencies and variation in focal colors across languages. We conclude that categorization in the contested semantic domain of color may be governed by principles that apply more broadly in cognition and that these principles clarify the interplay of universal and language-specific forces in color naming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11178-11183
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number40
StatePublished - Oct 4 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Color categories
  • Semantic universals
  • Semantic variation


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