In 8th Century Japanese, the word ‘ao’ could be used for all cool colours; the blue of the sky, the green of bamboo, black earth and a dappled grey horse. 17th Century English had around fifty different words for yellow, reflecting an emphasis on light and dark contrasts in colour naming. In Yucatec, (Mexico) naming colour entails talking about shape, size and texture. In Hanunóo, (Philippines) the conversation is about ripeness and dessication, colour fastness and fading, while in Mursi (Ethiopia), cattle colours lie behind all colour terms.
Early research into ancient Greek (Gladstone, 1858), confounded by Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’, concluded that his sense of colour was at an early evolutionary stage. Among linguists, the universalists maintain that languages have from 2 to 11 basic colours, acquired in a set progression (Berlin and Kay, 1969). The relativists maintain that culture determines the naming and relevance of colour.
This exhibition by Mary Kuper has no answer to the question of how culturally similar or different our languages reveal us to be, but translates some of Mary’s research back into colour and shares her enjoyment in the complexity of the questions.
Thanks to the Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS and to Arts Council England for their support of this exhibition.
FREE – Just Turn Up
You can also view this exhibition online below (opens external link):