The evolution of color naming reflects pressure for efficiency: Evidence from the recent past

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Journal of Language Evolution, 2022


It has been proposed that semantic systems evolve under pressure for efficiency. This hypothesis has so far been supported largely indirectly, by synchronic cross-language comparison, rather than directly by diachronic data. Here, we directly test this hypothesis in the domain of color naming, by analyzing recent diachronic data from Nafaanra, a language of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, and comparing it with quantitative predictions derived from the mathematical theory of efficient data compression. We show that color naming in Nafaanra has changed over the past four decades while remaining near-optimally efficient, and that this outcome would be unlikely under a random drift process that maintains structured color categories without pressure for efficiency. To our knowledge, this finding provides the first direct evidence that color naming evolves under pressure for efficiency, supporting the hypothesis that efficiency shapes the evolution of the lexicon.