Color terms

Jane McGary
Sun, 19 Sep 2004 10:18:03 PDT
I had an idea that my comments on color terms would stir up a lot of 
discussion! This is something almost everyone can talk about. Some responses:

Yes, the RHS color chart is valuable, and I am going to buy one, but only 
because I can call it a business expense; as several correspondents 
remarked, it is quite expensive. However, a reference tool of this kind is 
valuable only to the extent that its users' readers have access to it. If I 
write that a flower is no. 187 on the RHS chart, only readers who have the 
chart will benefit from that information. Those who don't will be 
(momentarily) bored or annoyed. That's how editors have to think.

There is at least one book on the subject of color terms and their 
cross-linguistic taxonomy: Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, "Basic color terms: 
Their universality and evolution" (Univ of California Press, 1969). 
Semanticists have also turned their eyes to folk biological classification, 
by the way. Berlin & Kay's conclusions have been modified to some extent by 
subsequent researchers and by Berlin's later work.

Susan Hayek wrote,
 >*And I believe, when I was teaching spec ed, somewhere I had a workshop 
on cultural >differences/languages and learned that in some native American 
cultures there was only one >word which meant warm colors and one word for 
cool. "Warm" and "cool", of course, may mean >different things in different 

I think this is one of those folk-linguistic myths that originate in 
misinterpretations by journalists or other nonspecialists, similar to the 
myth that there are languages where it's impossible to count beyond three 
(a misinterpretation arising from verb number, apparently), or languages 
that have a hundred words for 'snow'. (True, you can make a hundred words 
for snow in Inuttitun [Eskimo], which can compound even more lavishly than 
German or Classical Greek, but you could make the same words in English if 
you really tried.) The Native American languages I studied used the same 
device for expanding their color terminology that European languages use, 
referencing (perhaps with affixes) the names of common objects that are the 
appropriate color, such as 'rose', 'turquoise', and 'gold'.

Jim Waddick wrote,
 >	Roses are red -  you get this response from many people, but isn't the 
color 'rose' another distinctly different shade?

Jamie noted that "rosa" in German is pale pink, but "rose" in English tends 
to be used for medium to deep pink, i.e. red mixed with white. Most garden 
roses, however, are either blue-pink or yellow-pink, as you will find when 
you try to mix them in arrangements. I think Eng. "rose" is rather a 
blue-pink, but not as blue as "mauve."

Jim went on,>and Violets are neither blue or rarely violet, but more often 
purple, yellow, etc.

"Purple" is a difficult term in English. For many people it's synonymous 
with "violet." Some people take the Classical view of "purple," which would 
make it a blue-red, while others shift their definition more toward the 
spectrum color indigo, a slightly reddish blue. If you lean toward the 
former, "purple" and "violet" (the latter is the spectrum term) are 
synonyms. I tend to write "violet" rather than "purple" for this color 
range. As for the colors of Viola spp., these range from near-blue to 
near-red, offering no help. If, as Mary Sue suggested, we discuss favorite 
purple-flowered bulbs, we may see how far people's field for "purple" 
extends, and we may hash out "lavender," "lilac," and so on.

We may even agree on a cutoff point for "blue," which plant catalog 
copywriters toss around so freely, as Mary Sue mentioned. The photos she 
cites are probably Photoshopped to create a more colorful page layout. 
There are really blue crocuses, but they're light blue (C. abantensis,  C. 
baytopiorum) or the blue is mostly in the external markings (C. 
leichtlinii), and you'll never find any of them in a mass-market bulb 
catalog. Regarding capturing blue in digital photographs, I think this 
depends on your camera. My Nikon Coolpix seems to do a good job with this 
(almost as good as Fuji Astria slide film), but I recently viewed the 
submissions for the NARGS photo contest and noted that certain 
photographers were having trouble with their blues (either because their 
cameras didn't capture the color right, or because they had tried 
unsuccessfully to enhance the colors), while others sent in photos of 
flowers in the blue range that appeared quite true to me. (I'm not a 
photography expert, but I have an unusually acute visual memory, including 
for colors.)

Jim mentioned more specialized color words ("lilacs, pinks, orchid, 
primrose, cerise (from the french for 'cherry'), and John Ingram also 
commented on these. Many of these words entered English in the 18th and 
19th centuries when fabric dyes diversified greatly (as Sheila noted, mauve 
resulted from a dye chemist's work in that period). Many such words were 
imported from French because it was the language of high fashion -- hence 
"cerise" and "puce," and "mauve" which is the French word for a flower, 
mallow or Malva. "Aqua," or pale greenish blue, mentioned by John, is a 
fashion color term innovated directly in English but taken from Latin.

Sorry to go on so long!  Must write something about the bulbs now.
Jane McGary
Northwestern Oregon, USA

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