16 February 2009


Thanks to another cruel grandparental deception, I believed that yellowcumpinky-blue was a colour until about 1991. I was really excited when, on a visit to the amazing treasure trove that is the stationery basement at Gibert Jeune in 1990 I picked up a highlighter that had a yellow, a pink and a blue nib so that one could vary one's highlighting colour of choice depending on one's mood (naturally, aged six, I had plenty of important documents and papers to highlight) and 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 (except pink; I didn't start liking pink until I was about 15), 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, viaBoingBoing, which reads something like, "there's probably no magenta. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

What puzzles me slightly is the way that in the intro, the blogger notes, "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 sez, is magenta (a rose by any other name would still smell as pink). Maybe I just spent too much time with my Crayola box set but I was actually wondering where Burnt Sienna, Chartreuse and Turquoise were. Of course, sienna, burnt or otherwise, aren'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, that its "celebrity" is Billy Crystal and that its music is Brown Eyed Girl) and so they don't really count when it comes to being proper, fully fledged colours.

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 only have one kind of blue, but Russian separates dark blue from light blue in its basic level classifications, to quote an example almost as hackneyed as any linguistic example involving Eskimos and snow. 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 make predictions of which colours might be found in a language. If a language has only two colours they will be black/dark and white/light, if it has a third, it will be red, green or yellow will be fourth, and if it has five, it will have both green and yellow, then blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey (this hierarchy is the reason I have to pause before being able to reel off the colours of snooker balls in order of their values). They worked out these "basic" colours by having participants who spoke different languages pick from a selection of coloured chips the chip which was, say, the reddest red (although no colour terms were actually used). Although speakers of a language might vary in the number of words they know 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. Maman and I still can't agree as to whether the bracelet I sometimes wear is yellow or green but most English speakers would probably agree that while this is green, this is yellow.

I found this topic really interesting and so tried to weave it in to several different essay questions in my final year exams, most notably my History of the Italian Language paper, which mostly consisted of memorising minute lexical and syntactic variations between zillions of Italian dialects over time (this goes to show why one should not select papers based on the supervisor, especially when he decides to go on sabbatical at the wrong moment). My lecturers and supervisors always said that given that most of us would get at least a 2:1, the best way to add that little oomph to tip you over into the First territory was to bring in some random knowledge acquired from another paper--a little, quirky je ne sais quoi. I spent over a third of my essay on the evolution of the Italian dialects talking about how freaking crazy it was that some Italian dialects preserve an almost Latin-like system of basic colour terms (with one word for blue and for green) and in other Italian dialects (though not in the standard language), the word forblue 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. God knows which paper I read that in*; stupidly, I tended to make notes by hand back then and so they aren't saved on my computer.

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 blue eyes, eyes like the sea, Blue Monday, etc. To some extent, we do the same, but we can at least say "sky blue" rather than "sky coloured," which isn't very satisfying when given in answer to the question, "What colour is the sky?" / "Sky coloured." In context, 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.

*I had thought I might have been wrong about blue and that it was the word green that had disappeared from some southern Italian dialects but--joys!--I have found the paper I read: it's Kristol (1980): Color Systems in Southern Italy: A Case of RegressionLanguage. Linguists are dinosaurs so Language isn't really available online unless you're a member of the LSA but I found the paper!

Now I am happy, even if this post has been a surprisingly tangential trip down memory lane and anyway, while I don't care whether or not magenta is a real colour, Henrik Zollinger (1984)believes that there is a case for suggesting that turquoise may evolve into a basic colour term and his 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 Magenta Hoax.

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