The Semantics of Colour: a Historical Approach

a blog by Dr C. P. Biggam

For several decades now, anthropological linguists have probed and investigated the various ways in which humans describe colour. This is not simply a matter of translation. We can translate English green into German (grün), into French (vert), into Spanish (verde) and so on, but do they all mean the same? Do they all include greenish yellows, for example? How much of turquoise do they include, if any? Do they all have metaphorical overtones of immaturity and inexperience? We may find that these four words have only minor differences in meaning, since they all belong to the Indo-European language family, but would their rough equivalents in Asian or African languages be so close?


The colour concepts common to members of a particular society, and the words they use to ‘label’ them can be surprising and even bizarre to speakers of an unrelated language. English speakers think of colour as the surface appearance of an object, such as blue, red, green, burgundy, taupe and many others, but, technically speaking, these are hues. Hue is just one element in colour studies, and some of the others are brightness, dullness, vividness, paleness, darkness, surface texture, moisture, dryness, size and shape. Moisture? Shape? What have they got to do with colour?


Some societies use words which combine two or more elements, such as a hue and dryness, to describe the surface appearance of objects. This is not the same as me describing dry cereal grains as ‘yellow’, because I can also describe a moist fruit as ‘yellow’. Some societies, however, can only use certain words for particular combinations, for example, for yellowness plus dryness. They may or may not have another yellow word for moist things. Consider Victoria Bricker’s findings in the Yucatec language of Mexico that (to take one example) colours could not be described as glossy or gleaming if they were associated with small, rounded objects. To uncover the colour systems of other societies, the anthropologist has to keep a (very) open mind.


Anthropologists can listen to native speakers, and record how they refer to colour as they go about their normal lives. My book, however, is concerned with historical languages, for which no native speakers survive. It suggests how historical linguists can extract as much colour information as possible from written evidence, and how to spot the likely presence of unfamiliar systems. The book introduces information which is essential for colour studies in general, such as how to recognize basic colour concepts and terms (in English, red is basic but crimson is not); how to deal with sub-sets (perhaps horse-colours or hair-colours); how to suspect the use of macro-categories (where, for example, blue and green are considered a single colour), and much more. It also considers the means employed by various scholars to record and explain colour systems, such as Anna Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage and Robert MacLaury’s Vantage Theory. All these ideas, illustrated by examples from around the world, are presented as the essential background to understanding historical references to colour. And it must be pointed out that the past is definitely a foreign country: our familiar English-language colour system was not always the same, as we can see from the following two cases.


Old English (the language up to c.1100) includes the word græg which developed into Modern English grey, but did it mean ‘grey’, that is, a mixture of black and white? To answer this question, the researcher looks at, among other things, the Latin words which Anglo-Saxons translated with græg. We find that græg has been used to translate croceus ‘saffron-coloured, yellow (or ruddy)’ and cycneus ‘swan-like (in whiteness)’. It would seem apparent that, when Anglo-Saxons used græg, they were not always referring to a mixture of black and white.


Even when we move nearer the present time, by looking at Middle English (from c.1100 to c.1500), we find that colour matters are still not entirely familiar to us. The word bleu, whose modern descendant is blue, was a new introduction to the language from Norman French, and some of its early meanings included ‘blonde’ and ‘pale’. Its almost exclusive connection with the blue hue developed gradually over many years. The researcher, of course, wants to know why and how, and it is hoped that, whatever the language under investigation, The Semantics of Colour will help him or her to investigate such mysteries.

The Semantics of Colour

Dr Biggam is Honorary Senior Research Fellow, English Language in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her new book The Semantics of Colour is now available from Cambridge University Press, including a Kindle edition.