Friday, October 13, 2006


I've always been fascinated with colors, and with the feelings and characteristics which conglomerate themselves with colors. It seems to me almost like synaesthesia, perhaps because I've always known what color each day of the week is.

Colors, their shadows and their penumbras... Red with anger, red with shame. Yellow cowardice. Green with envy, or just a greenhorn. Pure as the white-driven snow, terror white as a sheet. A black mark against his name.

Purple and orange don't resonate so much, but I suspect that's because you don't run into these colors until you hit a language which has names for a good many colors. (Sapir and Whorf, take a bow.) Purple and orange are Johnny-come-latelies. Black and white and red, those you find in any language which names at least three colors. I forget which various colors may come fourth, but I do believe blue is always fifth. Seems I've read that somewhere, blue always comes fifth.

Blue is also the color that has by far the widest range of emotional and characteristical and linguistical conglomerations. Some years back, William Gass wrote a book entitled On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, which begins more or less as follows:
Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings... that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit— dumps, mopes, Mondays— all that's dismal— low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch... blue bottles... social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese...
More blue things and para-things than you can shake a stick at.

Alexander Theroux wrote a book entitled The Primary Colors; and another volume called The Secondary Colors, wherein orange and purple come into their own, at greater length than you might imagine possible.

Of course you know me, philosophical realist that I am: I still dare, in a nominalistic age, to think that beneath all this colorly conglomeration— in and with and under it, so to speak— there lurk deep truths and dark mysteries which a reductive and controlling technocratic age would rather that we neither name nor ponder. A person who is concerned to fathom the manifold mysteries of which blue is a natural sacramental, is a person who is just that much less easy to control and to trammel within the confines of good citizensheep. Or as Number 6 put it: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered... I am not a number— I am a free man."

In his Theory of Colors, Goethe said, "Colors are the deeds and the sufferings of light." My favorite color is red. There's something exalted, and at the same time strong and comforting to me, about red. Once when I was six years old I had a dream that I got an infected tooth, and I died and went to heaven. Everything in heaven was red, a bright luminous red lit up from within. I cannot read paragraph 919 of Goethe's Theory of Colors without thinking of that dream:
When we see them bring forth green below and red above, it will be hard to resist the thought that the green is connected with the earthly creation of the Elohim, and the red with their heavenly creation.
My favorite color is red. Oddly enough, my favorite two-color combination is yellow and black. When I see something colored yellow and black, it often sends a tingle up my spine, particularly if it is something at all artistic or aesthetic. But my favorite color is red.



Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Uh, no, actually it looks as though blue is always sixth: "If a language has only two colors--and all languages have at least two--they are always white and black; if a language has three colors, the one added is red; if a fourth is added, it will be either green or yellow; when a fifth is added, it will then include both green and yellow; the sixth added is blue; the seventh added is brown; and if an eighth or more terms are added, it or they will be [in no particular order] purple, pink, orange, or gray."

And this doesn't yet get to differences in how various languages draw (or don't draw) distinctions between, for instance, green and blue.

Friday, October 13, 2006 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Blue. Blue is my favorite color. Definitely. I'm off to post about it. My gossip column will have to wait ;)

Saturday, October 14, 2006 2:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

And how did Berlin and Kay know which order the colors were added to languages? First written reference? Examination of infants learning languages? Anthropology?

Because anthropologists are generally just making guesses. For example, the widely academically accepted guessing-as-fact about the Essenes at Quamran. Which were flatly discredited in the extreme by later digs in Jerusalem. This is not to say I don't find anthropology interesting, just not usually hard-science any more than English-lit.

On the other hand, there are some fascinating ideas about the differences in facial structure from the sphinx to the pharoahs, as well as differences in style and technology, that suggest they were created by two different cultures. And that one culture (the sphinx) was both earlier and much more highly advanced. Which would indicate a glitch in the academic theory that society evolves instead of devolves. But thats really more archeology, don't you think?

Back to colors: Doesn't the flat statement of color-introduction order seem ... odd? People generally speak a language before they write a language. Babies will learn whatever they're taught, and would have no innate knowledge of the entirety of any given language.

Have they studied ALL languages? (Even today, I doubt any scholar knows ALL languages. I doubt there's even a data-base of ALL languages) Which I find ridiculous since their work was published in 1969, well before the age of instant online information.

Perhaps their work might be justified with a statistal analysis of language. The problem with that being the small sample size from known languages, compounded by unknown languages. Not to mention, were the languages they studied statistically representative of multiple cultural models?

Their work certainly seems to raise more questions than it answers. Perhaps its those questions that inspired him to study color related to letters. He certainly seems to have the data to back his observations.

Sunday, October 15, 2006 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

I believe that 1969 study was based on the vocabulary of 200 different languages— selected on what basis, I don't know. Idea being, some languages distinguish more colors than others. Some languages have only four or five color-names; some languages, 10 or 11.

If you find a language which has only 3 color names, they will be black and white and red; if only 4 color names, they will be either black and white and red and yellow, or else black and white and red and green; and so on. So it's not the order in which colors were added within the same language, it's the order in which additional colors appear as we move from languages with fewer color-names to languages with more color-names. This held up across the 200 languages they studied, and it seems I've read that, with a few minor adjustments and qualifications, it's held up in other languages studied since.

It always gets tricky when one gets into the field of linguistic universals. Even when one has one's finger on something, it's often not quite clear just what that something is. For instance, in some languages numbers will precede the noun, in other languages they'll follow the noun. Likewise, in some languages a demonstrative will precede the noun, and in other languages follow it. But in every one of a large number of languages studied, if demonstratives and numbers both precede the noun, then the demonstrative will always precede the number.

Thus: these five books, and not *five these books.

This seems to be a linguistic universal. But what deeper structure, if any, does it point us to? I first read it 30 years ago in a linguistics book in a university library, and have read it in a couple of other books since.

Yet, since back before I ever first read it, my own created language of Hermetic has been a counterexample: demonstratives and numbers regularly precede the noun, but the number precedes the demonstrative: pantho vagi sipiri, "these five books"; literally, "five these books."

Do constructed languages count as counterexamples? In Hermetic "purple" is mn'ikono, and it has all sorts of conglomerations and reverberations and connotations, moreso than some of the other Hermetic color names. But show me a language with a word for "blue," which doesn't also have names for black, white, red, yellow, and green. I'm not saying it can't be done; but apparently nobody has yet come up with a counterexample of a real-life language where blue isn't at least sixth. Whereas there are languages where yellow (or green) is fourth, and there is no fifth.

Sunday, October 15, 2006 1:26:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Or let's see if I can sum up Berlin & Kay's notion as verbosely as possible:

If a language has only two color-names, they will correspond to our black and white.

If a language has only three color-names, they will correspond to our black and white and red.

If a language has only four color-names, they will correspond either to our black and white and red and green, or else to our black and white and red and yellow.

If a language has only five color names, they will correspond to our black and white and red and yellow and green.

If a language has only six color names, they will correspond to our black and white and red and yellow and green and blue.

If a language has only seven color names, they will correspond to our black and white and red and yellow and green and blue and brown.

In other words, their thesis implies that as long as a language has no more than seven basic color-names, then knowing how many color names a language has will tell us exactly which colors that languages has names for— with the sole ambiguity occurring in the case of a language which has precisely four color-names ("black-white-red-green" or "black-white-red-yellow"?).

Sunday, October 15, 2006 6:11:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Well, I look around some more online, find tons of material on Berlin & Kay. Turns out their theory is a tad more subtle than I'm stating it here, but for all practical purposes I'm pretty much in the ballpark.

B&K also get into that stuff about the porous boundary between green and blue, as found in some languages.

Color. "Blue is always sixth." (Or fifth, or whatever... no, sixth :) This is just one of those many little oddments I've read somewhere in various linguistics books over the years— and never bothered to look into in much more detail until I dashed off this blog post. I'm almost tempted to hunt up and buy B&K's original 1969 book. Ah, it's times like this I really miss Steven Malcolm Anderson... he was truly the maestro of colors.

Monday, October 16, 2006 2:48:00 AM  
Blogger Richmond said...

I like green. To look at. A deep verdant green.

To wear, I like reds and burgandys. :)

Monday, October 16, 2006 3:00:00 PM  

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