The language of colours

Which came first, the colour orange or the fruit orange? This is a question that has tormented me for longer than I care to remember. I am now able to provide an answer. The earliest evidence for the use of orange as a colour term in English comes from 1512. In Old English, you would have said “yellow-red”. The Arabic word nāranj was borrowed by a number of European languages. So we have Spanish (naranja), Italian (narancia), and Byzantine Greek (nerantzion). You will have noticed that that all of these words begin with the letter n. Why is it not present in English? This is probably down to a linguistic phenomenon known as rebracketing. This is typical with words borrowed from other languages. In the case of orange the n from the start of a noun was transferred onto the end of the a form of the indefinite article. There are other examples:

adder: from a naddre

apron: from a napron

nickname  from an ekename

So we should really be saying a norange. Perhaps I could start a campaign to bring back the n. English is not the only Ianguage that has lost the n. In Italian they now say arancione and in French it is of course orange. Curiously, in Portugal they say laranja. For all you language geeks out there, here is a linguistic map of orange in different European languages:

orange map

Today I’m going to look at the fascinating world of colours. There are just so many words in English to describe colours. A quick search of internet comes up with amethyst (light purple) fawn (light brown), magenta (purple-red), puce (between dark brown or dark red and purple), vermilion (bright red or red-orange) and smalt (medium blue). I have to confess to not being familiar with many of these terms. I became interested in this subject after listening to a BBC Word of Mouth podcast on colour words.

In the programme they refer to the universalist theory of colour cognition, which argues that it is an innate, physiological process and not a cultural one. In their 1969 book Basic Colour Terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay sought to show an evolutionary sequence of colour terms. Almost all of the languages they examined appeared to have colour words that drew from the same 11 basic colours, starting with white and black, proceeding  to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown, and finally to orange and purple. There are many other colour terms, but they will derive from these basic ones. Burgundy, claret and scarlet are all kinds of red, but red is not a kind of burgundy.

Berlin and Kay are also identified the following patterns. Steven Pinker likens it the Crayola product line, with the fancier ones adding colours to the more basic ones:

  • All languages contain terms for black and white.
  • If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  • If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  • If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  • If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  • If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  • If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or grey.

There are, nevertheless, subjective elements of colour perception and language. Two particularly interesting colours are blue and green. Many languages do not distinguish between them. Instead, they use a cover term, grue if you will, which spans both colours. Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London carried out a famous experiment with the Himba tribe from Namibia, whose language has no word for word for blue and no real distinction between green and blue. They were shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square. And they really did struggle to tell the psychologist which of the squares was a different colour to the others. However, the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English, and when they looked at a circle of green squares, they were able to pick out a different shade of green extremely quickly.

So in linguistics we have the debate between relativists and universalists, which can apparently get rather heated at times. Who is right? It is a bit difficult for a layman to appreciate all the subtleties of this debate. Barbara Sanders criticised the evolutionary component of Berlin and Kay’s theory as “an endorsement of the idea of progress” and accuses them Eurocentric bias. Others have criticised their methodology.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the nature-nurture debate. And like that long-running question, it may well be a mixture of both. Anna Franklin, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Sussex, and her colleagues recently demonstrated that pre-linguistic human babies perceive some of the same colour boundaries as English-speaking adults. Do we need to have a word for a colour to see it? The answer to that question is clearly no; our ability to categorize colours exists when we are infants, before we learn language. What happens, though, is that as you learn the words for colour, as your categories become more linguistic, they become more left-hemisphere dominant. According to Franklin, sometime between infancy and adulthood colour categories move hemispheres. I am not a fan of the idea that language shapes thought. I have argued in previous posts that this influenced is greatly exaggerated. But, there is no doubt that this debate has not yet been decided.


6 Responses to The language of colours

  1. Dilys Anne Kevan says:

    A quirky comment in Modern Standard Arabic the word for orange is now derived from Portugal.
    Also the colour words are divided into two groups which form the feminine in different ways. One group is the names of colours: black, white, red, green, blue and yellow (not sure if there are more) and the other group the words are derived from the name of a thing that is that colour eg pink (a rose) , brown (coffee), grey (ash) etc.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking article

  2. Nicholas says:

    Is it true that the Russian word for red is the same word for beautiful. In other words, it’s the “Beautiful Square” in Moscow?

  3. Dilys Anne Kevan says:

    Ooops! Sorry about all the mistakes!

  4. Judith Bates says:

    I am pleased to note that Galician is included in the “orange” map. I would be interested to know the word in Cornish.

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