Names for colors vary widely across languages, but color categories are remarkably consistent. Shared mechanisms of color perception help explain consistent partitions of visible light into discrete color vocabularies. But the mappings from colors to words are not identical across languages, which may reflect communicative needs—how often speakers must refer to objects of different color. Here we quantify the communicative needs of colors in 130 different languages by developing an inference algorithm for this problem. We find that communicative needs are not uniform: Some regions of color space exhibit 30-fold greater demand for communication than other regions. The regions of greatest demand correlate with the colors of salient objects, including ripe fruits in primate diets. Our analysis also reveals a hidden diversity in the communicative needs of colors across different languages, which is partly explained by differences in geographic location and the local biogeography of linguistic communities. Accounting for language-specific, nonuniform communicative needs improves predictions for how a language maps colors to words, and how these mappings vary across languages. Our account closes an important gap in the compression theory of color naming, while opening directions to study cross-cultural variation in the need to communicate different colors and its impact on the cultural evolution of color categories.