Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shining so Bright

On rainy nights, the pavement reflects passing lights
and makes one feel as if life is a watercolor painting.
It's hard to imagine describing our surroundings
without words for the colors we sense; 
but as I mentioned yesterday, early in the history of English,
there were very few terms to suggest the saturation or hue of a color.

According to Ronald Casson in the article
"Color Shift: Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue,"
which appeared in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language,
most color terms of the Old English period 
predominately expressed brightness and luminosity.

Photo courtesy of

For example, Casson cites an early brightness term called tohrt, 
which denoted light.
Torht was often used in collocations 
like heofontorht, meaning heavenly or glorious brightness,
and radortorht, meaning 'heavenly bright.'
Since heofon is the word for heaven,
I would think those two would be reversed.
Regardless, the word torht was dropped during the Middle English period.

But there were a few brightness terms 
that did survive into today's English.
For example, dunn meant strongly bright 
and was used to describe rising clouds of dust, vapor, or smoke. 
The word's form  survived nearly intact,
but over time, its meaning shifted 
so that today dun refers to a brownish, dull color.

Casson also includes the term pealu,
a dusky gray color that was used to describe a polished shield, 
sun shining on waves, or a well-groomed horse.
Today's word pale is derived from pealu.

Another brightness term that was introduced early in the history of English,
but one that also later changed its meaning 
was the word scir (pronounced sheer).
According to Casson, scir  meant gleaming, clear, and bright.
Later in Middle English, the word's spelling changed to schir 
and added the meaning pure.
Over time, the word came to be associated only 
with the qualities of thinness and transparency,
meanings which the word sheer retains today. 

And what colors were in the English lexicon from the beginning?
Come back tomorrow and we'll walk through the watercolor world of early English.

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