16 February 2009


Thanks to my grandfather, I believed that yellowcumpinky-blue was a colour until about 1991. So, I was excited when, on a visit to the treasure trove that is the stationery basement at Gibert Jeune in 1990, I picked up a highlighter that had yellow, pink and blue nibs so that you could vary your highlighting colour depending on your mood. (Naturally, aged six, I had plenty of important documents and papers to highlight). If you took off all three lids at once, you could theoretically highlight in the mythical colour known as yellowcumpinky-blue. Of course, anyone who has ever painted will know, the closest real colour to yellowcumpinky-blue would probably be dishwater grey or muddy brown. And here was the hard lesson I learned: just because three colours are pretty by themselves, it doesn't mean that mixing them will make something pretty. 

I started thinking about this past disappointment because of this blog post I read recently, which reads something like, "there's probably no magenta. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The blogger explains, "The range extends from red through to violet, with orange, yellow, green and blue in between. But there is one colour that is notable by its absence." Excluding yellowcumpinky-blue, the obvious answer, she writes, is magenta (a rose by any other name would look as pink). Maybe I just spent too much time with my Crayola set but I was wondering where Burnt Sienna, Chartreuse and Turquoise were. Of course, sienna, burnt or otherwise, isn't a neatly defined part of the spectrum of visible light (although I learned from the Crayola website that Burnt Sienna is one of America's top 50 crayons, its "celebrity" is Billy Crystal and its "music" is Brown Eyed Girl) and so it doesn't count a proper, fully fledged colour.

The English language has very many words for colours--which is probably why Pantone and Dulux are so successful--far more than most other languages. But even when you look at the basic words for colour in a given language, there isn't any kind of cross-linguistic uniformity. English has a relatively high number of colour words but from the basic colour terms, we have blue, while Russian has dark blue and light blue, but not just plain blue. Some languages only have four basic colour terms, some have only two (the equivalent of "black" and "white" but "black" often means "things that are dark" or even "things of a certain texture").

If any academic work pushed me in the direction of linguistic studies, it was Berlin and Kay's 1969 Basic Color Terms, in which the researchers report a hierarchy of colours that allows you to predict which colours might be found in a language. Does our language determine how we perceive colour? Or does how we perceive colour determine our language? They found that the order was thus: two colour terms = black/dark and white/light; three colour terms = red; four colour terms = yellow or green; five colour terms = yellow and green; and then come blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey, in that order. 
This hierarchy is the reason I can never remember the order of snooker balls.

Berlin and Kay worked out these "basic" colours by having native speakers of different languages pick from a selection of coloured chips the chip that was, say, the reddest red (although no colour terms were actually used). Although speakers of a language might know different numbers of words for types of red (or be able to distinguish different numbers of separate colours within a class of reds), they generally tend to agree on the number of "focal" or basic colours. Mum and I still can't agree whether the bracelet I sometimes wear is green or yellow but most English speakers would probably agree that while this is green, this is yellow.

I found this topic fascinating and tried to weave it in to several essay questions in my final year exams, most notably my History of the Italian Language paper. I spent over a third of my essay on the evolution of the Italian dialects talking about how bizarre it was that some Italian dialects preserve an almost Latin-like system of basic colour terms (with one word for blue and for green) while in others, the word for blue does not exist, even though there was a perfectly decent word for blue in Latin. This meant that these dialects had carelessly manage to lose a basic colour term over time and this retrograde evolution was certainly not expected. (The 1980 study about this was published by Kristol in Language
Color Systems in Southern Italy: A Case of Regression.)

Speakers of those dialects of Italian would still be able to talk about the sky, of course, and about other blue things by using noun-based compounds: sky-coloured eyes, eyes like the sea, a chocolate-coloured jacket, etc. To some extent, we do the same in English, but we can at least say "sky blue" rather than "sky coloured"; alas, the latter isn't very satisfying when given in answer to the question, "What colour is the sky?" Conversely, answering "grass green" to the question, "What colour was the traffic light?" might seem to flout Grice's Conversational Maxim of Quantity: it doesn't matter how green or what kind of green the light was, only that it was green, most of the time.

This post has been a surprisingly tangential trip down memory lane and while I don't really care whether or not magenta is a "real" colour, I was interested to read Henrik Zollinger's 1984 paper in which he argues that turquoise may eventually evolve into a basic colour term; the references list a whole range of other turquoise-themed research. As turquoise is by far my favourite colour, I like this idea better than the Great Magenta Hoax.

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