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Paul Kay and others have proposed that "there are universal tendencies in color naming, in that linguistic color categories are organized around universally shared focal points … in color space" that correspond roughly to English black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (Regier, Kay, and Cook). They argue further that languages respond to these universals by developing Basic Color Terms (or BCTs), an important subset of color words in nearly all languages (Berlin and Kay; Kay and Maffi; Kay and Regier; dissenting views can be found in Davies; Lyons; and Roberson, Davies, and Davidoff and many others). This paper argues that BCTs and focal colors are essential for understanding the Latin color vocabulary, but differs with the conclusions of recent applications of these ideas to Latin. It is based on a comprehensive study of all uses of color terms in Pliny's Naturalis Historia, a work that was chosen for this purpose because, while it is very rich in the range and frequency of color terms used, its subject and style are notably prosaic and thus unlikely to contain nonstandard uses.

The broad-ranging studies of the Latin color vocabulary produced by André, Arias Abellán, and Baran unfortunately do not address the issue of BCTs at all. Mark Bradley, however, argues that Latin has BCTs only for "black" and "white" and maintains that Latin color words such as ruber, viridis, and flavus are "concrete and material" and thus do not qualify. Oniga, on the other hand, proposes that Latin strongly confirms the universalists’ thesis, and argues in addition that Latin possesses BCT doublets for white (albus/candidus), black (ater/niger), and red (ruber/rutilus) that distinguish brilliant colors from dull ones, and possesses as well ordinary terms for green (viridis) and yellow (flavus). Oniga further holds that classical Latin was in the process of acquiring a blue term, caerul(e)us.Along similar lines, Kristol had earlier proposed that Latin had "regressed" in its development and lost its blue term.

I will argue that Bradley's position is untenable, partly because he confuses ancient philosophical attempts to explain basic colors as colors with modern linguistic accounts of the semantics of a class of basic color words, and also because he fails to address the changes the universalist position has undergone since it was first proposed by Berlin and Kay in 1969. I will also argue that Bradley is mistaken about the lexical semantics of supposedly “material” color terms such as viridis, which in fact function as BCTs in Latin.

However, I will also argue that Oniga and Kristol's proposals for BCTs in Latin fail to explain Pliny's color language. In particular, Pliny uses the verb rubeo most often for "red" instead of Oniga and Kristol’s proposed adjectives ruber or rutilus; he prefers luteus overwhelmingly to flavus for "yellow"; and caerul(e)us is a fully established BCT in his lexicon. Furthermore, Pliny regularly ignores the brilliant/dull distinction between some BCTs that Oniga posits.

Pliny's language does appear to show, however, that universal focal color categories are operative in his usage, since his most frequently-used and widely-applied color terms align well with the established focal categories, even if his preference for individual terms to convey them differs from that of many other Latin authors. Thus Pliny provides support for the universality of focal color categories, but also shows that these categories should be understood to interact with more localized cultural and linguistic factors to produce significant variation in the particular choice of BCTs. For this reason, future studies of color in Latin should be attentive to such finer-grained variations when they attempt to characterize the nature of the Latin color lexicon.


  • André, Jean. 1949. Étude sur les termes de couleur dans la langue latine. Paris: Klincksieck.
  • Arias Abellán, Carmen. 1994. Estructura semántica de los adjectivos de color en los tratadistas latinos de agricultura y parte de la « Enciclopedia » de Plinio. Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla, Secretariado de Publicaciones.
  • Baran, N. 1983. “Les caractéristiques essentielles du vocabulaire chromatique latin (Aspect général, étapes de développement, sens figurés, valeur stylistique, circulation),” ANRW II.29.1, 321-411.
  • Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay. 1969. Basic Color Terms. Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • Bradley, Mark. 2004. "The colour blush in ancient Rome," in L. Cleland and K. Stears (eds.) Colour in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford, 117-21.
  • Bradley, Mark. 2009. Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome. Cambridge University Press.
  • Davies, I. R. L. 1997. “Colour cognition is more universal than colour language,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20, 186-7.
  • Kay, Paul and Terry Regier. 2006. “Language, Thought and Color: Recent Developments,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10, 51-54.
  • Kay, Paul, and Luisa Maffi. 1999. “Color appearance and the emergence and evolution of basic color lexicons,” American Anthropologist 101, 743-760.
  • Kay, Paul. 2005. “Color categories are not arbitrary.” Cross-Cultural Research 39(1), 39-55.
  • Kristol, Andres. M. 1980. "Color Systems in Southern Italy: A Case of Regression," Language 56(1), 137-145
  • Lyons, John. 1997. “The vocabulary of colour with particular reference to Ancient Greek and Classical Latin.” In Alexander Borg (ed), The Language of Colour in the Mediterranean. Otto Harrassowitz, 38-75
  • Oniga, Renato. 2009. “La terminologia del colore in Latino tra relativismo e Universalismo,” lecture delivered to the Accademia Fiorentina di papirologia e de studi sul mondo antico, November 12, 2009.
  • Regier, Terry, Paul Kay, and Richard Cook. 2005. "Focal colors are universal after all," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (102)23, 8386-8391.
  • Roberson, D., Davies, I., and J. Davidoff. 2000. “Color categories are not universal: replications and new evidence from Stone-age culture,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129, 360-398.

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