Colour etymology, naming light

A complete quote from the book The art of looking sideways by Alan Fletcher:

Colour words are acquired by cultures in a strict sequence according to anthropologists who analysed 98 widely differing languages.

  • All languages have black and white.
  • if there are three words, the third is red.
  • If there are four, then it is green or yellow.
  • if five then whichever didn’t make four, yellow or green.
  • if six, blue.
  • if seven, it is brown.
  • if eight or more, then purple, pink, orange and grey are added in any order.

However, it is not quite this neat. An African desert tribe has no word for green, but six for red. Italian has three words for blue: celeste, azzurro and blu. Swahili doesn’t have any, so coined bulu from english. Creek and natchez indians use the same name for yellow and green, as do the highland scots for blue and green. French has two words for brown: brun and marron, but there isn’t one in chinese, japanese, welsh, or, (less surprisingly) inuit. These, despite the hoax, do have at least seven words for white.

And a primitive tribe in the new guinea highlands still speak a black and white language and distinguish colours in terms of brightness.

More oddities on colours here

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