Alan’s Color/Language Project

Alan Kennedy has written here many times before, most recently about the many color-related idioms that people use around the world. Alan has wonderful vantage point for making his observations: he teaches English to adults who have come to Manhattan from all over the world. He has taken a particular and abiding interest in colorful language, and when I offered to support his research on this site, he was happy to take me up on it.

So I am delighted to present a new and permanent installation on this site, Alan Kennedy’s Color/Language Project. There are three parts to it.

First of all, you can read his short article, Linguistic Facts About Color. I found the Berlin/Kay color spectrum especially interesting: languages always add colors in the same order. Any language with words for only three colors will always have names for white, black, and red. Any language with six color words will add green, yellow, and blue. I was surprised to see that leafy green has primacy over the blue of sky and sea. Even yellow outranks blue.

The next resource for the Color Project is an ever-growing spreadsheet, Color Idioms In Different Languages (if you prefer, you can see that same information as a single Google Spreadsheet page). Look at the color distributions by language. The list is far from comprehensive, but it hints at some intriguing possibilities. Is German bluer than most languages? Is Korean redder? And why?

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, you can add your own favorite expression to this resource using this Color Idiom contribution form. The suggested idioms won’t appear instantly on the list; Alan will review them from time to time and they’ll get added to the published spreadsheet.

So there you have it: a new resource, courtesy of Alan (with a little help from his friends here at Star Chamber Headquarters). Help it grow.

6 thoughts on “Alan’s Color/Language Project”

  1. To me, the order of addition of the colors shows that language is, at its heart, communicative and not descriptive. Why do we need a word to describe the color of the sky? It is “sky.” Why do we need color words for plants or ground, especially in the Tropics where the leaves are always “leaf.” Think of a landscape, if you saw something red, that would be worth pointing out to someone else. You’d need a word for that. I suspect the number of colors a language uses is more dependent on the advancements of their textile industries than the imaginations of their poets.

  2. I remember running across this idea in a linguistics class lo these many years ago.

    The first thing I remember is that this is a discussion of color root words, not general color descriptors. So the languages (I forget how many, or which ones they are) that only have root words for “black” and “white” might call blue “sky white”, green “leaf black”, and so on.

    From some kind of optimization perspective, it makes sense to me that red would be the next color to come out. Red is a very attention-getting color, primarily because blood is red, so it getting the third root word makes sense.

  3. Sky-white and leaf-black… that makes sense to me. I know that linguists like to say that no language is truly “primitive”, and I couldn’t imagine a language that had absolutely no way to express the color green.

  4. My thought on textiles, or more accurately dyes, was that, if everything in your life that is green is made of vegetation, then why do you need separate words to describe “leaf” and “green”? “Green” is only useful as a word if there is something that comes in multiple color choices and you want to express your choice, like, “Ooh, that green chiffon number is to die for!” According to the OED, green takes its root from an Old Teutonic word for grow, so maybe we’re still calling things “leaf” afterall.

  5. I would like to contact Mr Alan Kennedy cause it seems we are doing the same project for the some period of time and I only found out today through the Stumble Upon recommendations. Email me, please. Thank you.

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