Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Unusual Features of Irish Color Terms

Here's a detailed look at the evolution of Irish color terms.

This section in particular caught my interest:


4.1.2 dividing the spectrum
In section 1.4.1, I discussed Carey’s (2009: 221) polarity between black and white, which does not exist between the colours of the spectrum according to him, and thus forming a continuum. Yet, a lot of the literature on the neurophysiology of colour – which I shall not further discuss here – points out two additional physiological polarities of visual perception: yellow-blue and green-red (Wooten and Miller 1997: 70). Each of these channels forms a polarity, rather than a continuum: red can be mixed with blue or yellow, but not with green, there is no such hue as ‘greenish red’ or ‘reddish green’ (McNeill 1972: 29). If red predominates the mixture we obtain unsaturated tones
of red and if green predominates we obtain unsaturated tones of green.

Under these terms, an Irish colour term such as glasrua does not refer to ‘greenish red’ but to an unsaturated subset of red, or to a greyish tone of red. This ‘polarity’ compound seems to be the only one included in the FGB dictionary, yet it does not have any tokens in the NCE, and only one of my informants (informant 9) recognised it as a colour compound. My informants did mention these other ‘polarity’ compounds: dubhgeal (lit. ‘black-white’ or ‘black-bright’; informants 3, 9, 10, 15, and 16); buíghorm (lit. ‘yellow-blue’; informants 13 and 18); deargghlas (lit. red-grue’; informants 2 and 12); and ciarbhán (lit. ‘black-white’; informants 15, 16, and 19). Other languages also seem to have colour words that denote polarities: Pukapuka (Cook Islands) has a colour term that translates into English as ‘yellow, blue’ (McNeill 1972: 24-25), and Karajá (Brazil) and Lele (Chad) both have terms that denote yellow or green or blue (information obtained from the Typological Database System).

These polarities, which are physiological channels of colour vision, do not influence colour perception or classification. The way the colour spectrum is divided into discrete colours, can still be culturally dependent: to state there is no intermediary hue between red and green is just as subjective as to state that a technologically advanced society should have a term for pink and/or orange.


The author assumes that contradictory colors cannot exist. But if you can see them, it is logical to name them in compounds like buíghorm (which may be the "yellow-gray" that I've seen mentioned only in translation).

This also relates to all the Irish color terms that aren't generally counted as "colors" in English, like alad for "piebald." Irish just plain classifies the appearance of things very differently than other Indo-European languages. I was fascinated to discover that a few other languages also have words for yellow-blue and other contradictions. \o/

Further consider that once writing is invented, every "obsolete" word becomes retrievable. In light of which, many Pagans who've studied Irish, even casually, know the older color terms because they learned those from the color ogham and they are useful. That thing really works.
Tags: art, crafts, ethnic studies, history, linguistics, vocabulary
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