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The semantics of colour: A historical approach by Carole P. Biggam (review)

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 951-953 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0064

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Carole Biggam’s The semantics of colour is an intelligent and useful book about contemporary research into the naming and categorization of color, with special attention to historical semantic studies of color. In her preface, B says she has three target audiences: (i) general readers with an interest in linguistics, (ii) university students of literature, linguistics, anthropology, and psychology with a concern for color, and (iii) semanticists, not color specialists. This said, the true audience for this book is the student or researcher (close to B’s (ii)) who is engaged or intends to engage in historical color-language research. Virtually every section and chapter of this book ends with some advice to potential researchers, and B is, throughout the book, concerned to point to the kind of information the historical researcher has access to and the sort of research she cannot access, and to demonstrate a variety of methods for conducting historical color research. These are fundamental values of the book. Anyone who is investigating color language historically would benefit from reading B’s book, for it is, in large part, a how-to for historical research into color categorization and naming—telling the reader how not to mess up one’s understanding of these things, especially in historical contexts.

And how might one mess it up? Easily! Suppose you assume that English color terms and concepts that are hue-based provide the template for understanding color terms in other languages. ‘Hue’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘color’ in English and many other languages, to the point where it is difficult to define it independently: if hue is color for ‘us’, how do we abstract color from color? Yet it is clear that other languages stress other dimensions of perceptual or even nonperceptual experience in their classifications. B does a good job of asking us to imagine and appreciate color concepts (or as psychologists often say, ‘categories’) different from those based on hue (N.B. Ch. 1). If there is one home truth for the historical researcher, it is to not assume that color words in historical languages, with no native speakers for us to query, neatly correspond to a hue-based color system.

For those having even a slight familiarity with the linguistic, anthropological, and psychological literatures on color naming and categorization, there is an elephant in the room. That would be Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s influential text, Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution (1969). B writes that Berlin and Kay’s book ‘changed her life’ (xi). This sounds dramatic, but this reviewer understands that dramatic claim. Berlin and Kay, love them or leave them, provided a framework within which to make sense of color terminology and color concepts—one that turns out to be especially useful for the historical semantics of color.

For those who need a Berlin and Kay refresher, or an introduction to this literature, the story goes, essentially, like this (but see B’s Ch. 2 for a detailed account). Immediately prior to the publication of Basic color terms in 1969, color language and color concepts were viewed as a best-case argument for linguistic relativity. Color terms differ across languages, and the differences were viewed through the lens of culture. If a language does not discriminate, lexically, between red and yellow (if it has one word for the conjunction of red and yellow stimuli, as named by Modern English (ModE)), then that is because there is some historical, cultural reason why this is so. Berlin and Kay agreed that there was a great deal of cultural variation in color nomenclature, but they argued that if you place a filter on that great variable set, you will find that some color terms are special, more ‘basic’ than others. The basic terms, according to Berlin and Kay’s set of linguistic and psychological criteria, number eleven (‘black’, ‘white’, ‘gray’, ‘red’, ‘yellow’, ‘green’, ‘blue’, orange’, ’purple’, ‘pink’, and ‘brown’), and they claimed that every language contains at most eleven and at least two basic color terms. Also, Berlin and Kay argued that there is an ‘evolutionary sequence’ through which the development of basic color terminology passes: as a language adds more basic terms...

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