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Altwestnordische Farbsemantik by Georg C. Brückmann (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 535-537 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0044

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Georg C. Brückmann’s monograph Altwestnordische Farbsemantik is, in spite of its ambitious title, quite brief: a mere ninety-seven pages are devoted to text.

The monograph is strange reading from introduction to conclusion. Brückmann purports to explore the semantic range of the basic color terms of Old West Norse (OWN), but despite a very brief mention of what the criteria for a basic color term are, in the form originally outlined in Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s Basic Color Terms (University of California Press, 1969), Brückmann does not actually take on the task of establishing what the basic color terms of OWN were. He takes it for granted that they are eight, the same eight basic color terms—blár, brúnn, grár, grǿnn, gulr, hvítr, rauðr, svartr [cool-colored, brown, gray, green, blonde, white, red, black, as I would translate them]—as Kirsten Wolf posits (see “Some Comments on Old Norse-Icelandic Color Terms,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 121:173–92, 2006), though, while he cites Wolf’s work, he does not present it as the basis (if it is) for his selection of these eight as the basic color terms of OWN, which leaves the reader to wonder how independently Brückmann has evaluated the evidence.

Brückmann’s corpus comprises those occurrences of OWN color terms that one can extract from a search for those terms in the Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog (ONP), and so is entirely limited to prose. Concerning poetry, Brückmann’s first and last words are “aufgrund der zu erwartenden Abweichungen im Gebrauch zwischen Prosa und poetischer Literatur scheint es zweckmäßiger, den Gebrauch von Farbbezeichnungen in der Prosaliteratur intensiver zu untersuchen” (p. 11) [due to the expected differences in use between prose and poetic literature, it seems more appropriate to examine the use of color names in the prose literature extensively]. This seems tendentious; much of the prose material included in his corpus probably started out in, or was inspired by, poetic forms, and to a certain extent indulges in poetic conventions such as alliteration. To draw a clean line between the semantics of poetry and prose in OWN is, then, a challenging proposition, and one that requires more careful choices on the part of the scholar than Brückmann gives evidence of having made.

Following this introduction, Brückmann proceeds to eight chapters in which he reviews each of the eight basic color terms he has identified in alphabetical order. None of these chapters are very long; the chapter on rauðr, for instance, is only eight pages, and that is the most frequent color term in the language (by my independent count). The chapter on svartr is the longest at thirteen pages; the other color terms get four or six pages apiece. This brevity is even more astonishing when one considers that at least one page in each chapter is nothing more than a list of the occurrences of the color term in question from ONP’s source texts—which is unnecessary, as anyone can access the same corpus. And yet, despite drawing directly from ONP’s slips, errors abound in the OWN texts quoted, including errors that no watchful eye should have overlooked (the past participle ending becoming “-unn” instead of “-inn,” for instance, on p. 52). Another sizable part of the beginning of each chapter is an etymology of the color term in question, which is based heavily on Frank Heidermanns’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der germanischen Primäradjektive (Studia Linguistica Germanica 33, de Gruyter, 1993), and thus yet another waste of space when Brückmann could have simply pointed us to that source for the etymology.

Once we get into the meat of Brückmann’s chapters on the individual color terms, there is unfortunately little space left and little of interest to read. Brückmann is interested in the non-literal connotations of the color terms in question, a subject to which he devotes a good deal of the discussion in each chapter. But he has little original to say on this subject, as he half-admits in his conclusion, with reference to earlier...

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