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Psychol Sci. 2009 Sep;20(9):1100-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02412.x. Epub 2009 Jul 28.

The relationship between language and the environment: information theory shows why we have only three lightness terms.

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University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1TU, United Kingdom.


The surface reflectance of objects is highly variable, ranging between 4% for, say, charcoal and 90% for fresh snow. When stimuli are presented simultaneously, people can discriminate hundreds of levels of visual intensity. Despite this, human languages possess a maximum of just three basic terms for describing lightness. In English, these are white (or light), black (or dark), and gray. Why should this be? Using information theory, combined with estimates of the distribution of reflectances in the natural world and the reliability of lightness recall over time, we show that three lightness terms is the optimal number for describing surface reflectance properties in a modern urban or indoor environment. We also show that only two lightness terms would be required in a forest or rural environment.

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