* Read the original article: “The origin of color words”, by Onna Nelson.
In an insightful article, Onna Nelson presents the origin of some widely used English color words — did you know that the English ‘black’ originates in a term that actually referred to white? Or that ‘a pink’ was a type of flower?
Nelson’s choice of words is of particular interest. There is indeed no need to explain the origin of the color term ‘peach’, or ‘lilac’, that many English speakers also use. Clearly, these color terms originate in a fruit and a flower, respectively. Things are however less obvious for terms like ‘black’, ‘red’, ‘orange’, ‘pink’, ‘green’, or ‘purple’. All the terms covered in Nelson’s piece are considered to be ‘Basic color terms’ according to the Basic color terms theory, which was first published in 1969 by Berlin and Kay.
The Basic color terms theory was developed in response to linguistic relativism, according to which color categories varies arbitrarily across languages. As Nelson notes, in some languages a single word refers to both blue and green shades, while in English for example, there are two distinct terms. What does this difference mean, and how to account for it?
In the early 20th century, it was believed that the absence of a term for blue in some cultures actually meant that these people did not see blue. This line of thought was quickly abandoned, but the question of the difference of categorisation across languages remain: If we all see colors in the same way, why is it then that some languages have only one term for what English speakers call ‘blue’ and ‘green’? According to Boas, people did not have two terms for this area of the color space simply because they did not need them. Color categories are determined by language use and environmental factors. Thus, color categorisation necessarily varies arbitrarily across cultures and languages.
But Berlin and Kay’s view on the matter differs drastically. They suggest that (a) there are color universals, common to all language of the world, and (b) that these color terms emerge in the lexicon following a constrained evolutionary sequence. The evolutionary sequence hypothesis accounts for why some languages do not have two terms for the blue-green area: Such languages have not yet evolved into a stage where they would separately encode blue and green. However, all languages are bound to evolve in the same way, ultimately including two distinct categories for blue and green.
The basic color terms are identified by a series of 8 criteria. Mainly: (i) Basic color terms are monolexemic – the meaning of the term cannot be understood by the meaning of its parts. (ii) Basic color terms are not hyponyms – their meaning is not included in that of other color terms. (iii) Basic color terms do not apply to a restricted class of objects – in other words they are abstract, and ‘blond’ is not a basic color term. (iv) Basic color terms are psychologically salient – people use them most, agree on how to use them and on what they mean.
Most relevant to Nelson’s piece is the first criterion. It has been suggested that the intent behind criterion (i), and the correlated criterion (vi) according to which basic color terms could not be the name of objects which are typically colored, is to suggest that basic color terms are referentially opaque. In other words, the reference to the origin of the term (the object in most cases) should be lost before the color term can become basic. The need for an etymological study of the origin of these color terms testifies to their opaqueness – even if in many languages this criterion does not seem to apply.
Thus ‘green’ originates in a term that means ‘to grow’, and while until recently Japanese had a single term, ‘aoi’ for the blue-green area of our color space, a specific term for ‘green’ recently emerged, ‘midori’, restricting the use of ‘aoi’ to blue. Interestingly however, Japanese still refer to traffic lights, and to apples as ‘aoi’. It could be, as Nelson suggests, that this is a trace of the older meaning of the term ‘aoi’, which encompassed both blue and green shades. However, according to Stanlaw (1997), there might be another explanation to this phenomenon: as the English terms for ‘green’, the Japanese term ‘aoi’ connotes growth. As apples are fruits that grow on trees, and traffic light are invitations to movement, it may well be that some particular green objects are today still referred to by the term ‘aoi’, even if today it mostly refers to blue.