Evolution and efficiency in color naming: The case of Nafaanra

AbstractMany theories hold that languages acquire new color terms with time, resulting in finer-grained color naming systems (e.g. Berlin & Kay, 1969; MacLaury, 1997; Levinson, 2000). More recently, it has also been claimed (e.g. Lindsey et al., 2015; Regier et al., 2015; Gibson et al., 2017) that this historical evolutionary process, and color naming more generally, are shaped by the need for efficient communication — that is, the need to communicate accurately, with a simple lexicon. Zaslavsky et al. (2018) [henceforth ZKRT] showed that an independent information-theoretic principle of efficiency, the Information Bottleneck (IB) principle (Tishby et al., 1999), explains much cross-language variation in color naming, and they hypothesized that color naming systems evolve under pressure to remain near the theoretical limit of efficiency. However, most research concerning the evolution of color naming, including ZKRT, has been based on synchronic cross-language comparisons, rather than on diachronic data.

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