Friday, November 16, 2012

Color My World

The earliest existing records in the Old English period
date from about  the 7th century.
And as I mentioned yesterday, there were very few color terms
in the language that described hue in that time. 
Most color terms expressed light and luminosity,
but words to express hue were not completely absent.
Often the same words were used to describe brightness and hue.

So I thought in this season of fall color, 
it would be fun to explore the earliest color words.
Yesterday I mentioned a fascinating article by Ronald Casson,
"Color Shift: The Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue"
published in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language.
It is Casson's article from which most of the following information 
on color and its uses is drawn.

As one might expect, 
rede or red is one of those colors that expressed both brightness and hue.
Casson tells us that red expressed the luminosity and brightness of flame,
but also the color of the sky at sunset or sunrise.

photo courtesy of

Red also described blood, complexion, hair, and roses.
photo courtesy of

Another color term that has been in English for centuries 
is green or in its early form, groene or grene.
It too had a brightness sense, being used to express 
the head of a falcon reflecting the sun, 
water, and flashes of light from green gemstones.
As a hue, green described fields, grass, trees, and unripe fruit.

leaf photo courtesy of

Yellow, originally gelu (g was once pronounced like y)
commonly expressed both brightness and, to a lesser extent, hue.
In its luminous sense, yellow described sunlight or the glint of gold.
But as a color, it described linden wood shields, wax, butter, and egg yolks. 

These are three of the original color terms. 
There are several. Does that number include blue? orange? purple?
Join me tomorrow as we explore more early colors.
There are a couple of surprises in the palette.

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