June 22, 2004

Hebrew colors

A while back Amritas led me to a page by Cecil Adams that discusses words for colors. It concludes that while different languages have words for different colors, “there is a remarkable degree of uniformity in the way different cultures assign color names”:

1. All languages contain terms for white and black.

2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.

3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).

4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.

5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.

6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.

7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, grey, or some combination of these.

My Hebrew dictionary (Even-Shoshan) classifies words as originating in four periods, according to the earliest attestation. They are: Biblical, Talmudic, Medieval, and Modern (It also has a class for foreign words.) I thought I would look up these colors and see if Hebrew fits the theory. This is what I found:

Attestation Translation Transcription Hebrew
biblical black shahor שחור
white lavan לבן
red adom אדום
yellow sahov צהוב
green yaroq ירוק
brown hum חום
light blue takhol תכול
talmudic blue kahol כחול
modern purple sagol סגול
pink varod ורוד
orange katom כתום
grey afor אפור

It almost fits. Of course, attestation is not the same as origin – a word might have existed in a certain period, but we don’t know about it because it wasn’t used in any of the surviving literature.

Notice that almost all the colors have the pattern XaXoX. This is the pattern for colors. The modern colors were clearly created on the basis of this pattern, for example pink is from the word “rose” (vered).

I added to Cecil Adams’ list light blue, since this is an important color in Hebrew, though it is lacking in English.

Can you figure out which colors are out of order?

Blue and Brown.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 22, 2004 11:52 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

× Network: