09 May 2009

How many colors in a rainbow?

(E)very language has a small determinate set of basic color terms... supplemented by an open-ended class of more subtle terms. Hence modern English has black white, red, brown…while, for example, crimson, vermilion, scarlet, and pink can be seen as kinds of red.

The set of basic terms differs among languages; to take one famous example, Japanese ao covers the space shared between blue and green, and some languages may have as few as two basic terms.

Evidently too the set can change over time: orange and purple were not even color words in Anglo-Saxon or Old French…

Aristotle himself had, in fact, only distinguished three colors in the rainbow: red, green, and purple…
From Ad Infinitum; a Biography of Latin, by Nicholas Ostler (Walker and Company, 2007), p. 307-8. (Other excerpts from this interesting book here).


  1. red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo and violet= Roy G Biv

  2. When you identify colors by its wavelength rather than a name, you'll have an infinite amount of colors.

  3. Learned this from a psych course many years ago, and cannot verify the validity of the following:

    - Cultures that don't distinguish "colors" often identify warm and cool shades or dark and light shades.
    - Cultures which only identify 1 color will identify (ie, have a name for) red.
    - Cultures with 2 colors will identify red and blue.
    - Continuing in this sequence, 3rd color = green or yellow
    - 4th color = yellow or green
    - 5th color = purple or orange
    - 6th color = orange or purple

    The sequence has to do with how common the color occurs in nature. I have found that this rule applies, in modern culture, to the colors of cars. We see many black, white, and grey/silver/beige cars on the road. The next most common car color is red. Followed by blue, then yellow or green, and lastly (least common colors) orange or purple. Not sure what the correlation is, but it's interesting.


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