In the Modern English word search, look up colour. Click on ‘A colour’, and you’ll find three (really four) Old English words: bleo, gebleo, deag and hiw. You may recognize that hiw is the ancestor of Modern English hue, but it’s more difficult to see that deag gives the modern word ‘dye’.
Q1. Is there an ancestor of the modern word colour? If not, why not? (A clue: what language do you think Modern English adopted colour from?) Answer Q1
Try another Modern English word search, which you may think has nothing to do with colour. Enter ‘Appearance’, and select ‘Form, appearance, aspect’. You’ll notice that two of the words which you earlier found listed under ‘Colour’ also occur here. So these words have at least two meanings. In actual fact, it’s worse than that. Start a new search, this time selecting the Old English word search, then ‘Exact search without length-mark’, and enter hiw. You’ll see that this word can operate in all sorts of categories, including beauty, parts of speech and destiny. This should tell you that hiw is not very much like its descendant hue ─ you’ll need to be careful of many such traps with colour terms.
Now return to the Modern English word search and enter the word red. Select the sixth entry down the list ‘Red/redness’ and look at the adjectives in the resulting list (scroll down to ‘aj.’ on the left-hand side). You’ll notice that the first few words read, reod and rudig remind you of red and ruddy. Look further down the list, and you’ll be able to pick out several compound colour terms, i.e. words made up of shorter terms, which include read.
List the compound adjectives which include the element read. Look up
each of the words you’ve retrieved in the Old English word search, and record
their definitions, i.e. the headings under which they appear. (You’ll have to
click on ‘View this section’ and scroll down to find your highlighted word.)
IMPORTANT: Be sure to read the instructions at the top of the search page about how to enter Anglo-Saxon letters like æ. Answer Q 2
Red is part of the modern language’s basic colour vocabulary, and it clearly has a long history in English, dating from Anglo-Saxon times. This raises the question of whether our other modern colour words are equally ancient and well-established.
Q3a. Look up Modern English green and yellow. Which Old English colour adjectives have the modern ones evolved from? (In each case, after your Modern English word search, select the colour section, e.g. ‘Green/greenness’, then find the adjectives.) Answer Q 3a
3b. In the same way, look up blue and turquoise. Describe the problems you encounter, and suggest reasons for them. Answer Q 3b
By now, you probably realize that, not only are the forms of colour words different in Old English, but sometimes their meanings and usages are too. Repeat your red search, and bring up the list of Old English words under ‘Red/redness’ again. Read for red is just the sort of straightforward translation you’d expect, but, wait a minute, why does the list include purpul and purpuren – don’t they mean ‘purple’, not ‘red’? And why does the list include rosen – surely a rosy colour is pink, not red? There are some colours we regard as different from red, which the Anglo-Saxons considered to be just areas of red.
Something else which can be difficult to understand is that some colour words can only be used in certain contexts. This is also true of the modern language. For example, you’re unlikely to use blonde except for hair (although it’s occasionally used to market products like drink and furniture), and you’re very unlikely to use roan except of animals, usually horses. This sort of thing happens in Old English too.
Q4a. Repeat your first Modern English word search on colour, and select ‘Colour of hair’. List all the hair-colours that are represented there (i.e. the modern colour words). Answer Q 4a
4b. Now look at the last section entitled ‘Grey-headed, hoary’. The principal (basic) Old English word for ‘grey’ is græg – do you see this word? Which Old English word is most commonly used in this section? To find a clue as to why it occurs so often for grey hair-colour, enter the word in an Old English word search, select ‘Exact search with length-mark’, and look at the instructions above to make sure you enter the length-mark correctly. If you do this right, you’ll see a clue concerning the context in which this word usually appears. Answer Q 4b
You may not be surprised that a lot of modern fashionable colour words like aqua or taupe have no obvious equivalents in Old English, and you’ve already found that even some ordinary colour words like red, although they have an Old English ancestor, have changed their meanings over the centuries. It’s time for more surprises.
Q5. Do a Modern English word search for pink and orange. What are the Old English words for these colours? Answer Q 5
You may be thinking now that Old English lacked some colour words that exist in Modern English. That’s true, but it’s also true that Modern English lacks some colour words that existed in Old English.
Q6a. Look up these words in the Old English word search: basu and fealu. What headings do they occur under? (Only record the colour senses of these words.) Answer Q 6a
How many adjectival compounds
which include these words can you find (use the wildcard search, both ‘Beginning-of-word’
and ‘End-of-word’)? How do the compounds help us understand the colours involved?
Answer Q 6b
We think of colour as an independent concept with a part to play in every aspect of our lives, e.g. we have favourite colours for our clothes, our rooms etc., and we can choose from colour charts, collections of paint samples, ranges of textile colours and so on. Because of this, we can think of colour in the abstract, divorced from any particular object, and we have a word for that abstract idea (colour). We expect that word to translate easily into another language, but other cultures (both historical and modern) may not regard colour as something abstract and separate, so they may not have a word dedicated to the concept. The Anglo-Saxons had no word which meant only ‘colour’. Old English hiw could mean ‘appearance, form, species’, and it even had minor senses like ‘figure of speech’ and ‘beauty’. One of those minor senses was ‘colour’. Deag > dye obviously indicates colour, but in a rather specialized sense. That leaves the two words in the group which don’t look like any modern word for colour: gebleo is defined by the Dictionary of Old English as ‘appearance, aspect; perhaps specifically: colour, hue’, so this word also has non-colour senses. Similarly, bleo is defined as ‘colour’, but also as ‘form, shape’.
All this shows that, for the Anglo-Saxons, the phenomenon of colour functioned as part of a ‘bundle’ of visual features appropriate to a particular object or person. Even descriptions of things like textiles or paintings, in which colour is important, involved a primary concept of a dye, stain or pigment, often combined with other concepts, such as, for textiles, things like the weight, thickness and origin of the cloth.
doesn’t mean, by the way, that the Anglo-Saxons had little interest in colour.
On the contrary, archaeological evidence shows that their jewellery, for example,
was a blaze of colours, especially gold and red
(see http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/, search on ‘Wingham’, and click on right-hand illustration for enlargement and description). That same love of colour can also be seen in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
(see http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/, search on ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ and click on first item, then on ‘view online’. Click on illustration for enlargement).
Today, we study colour in several academic disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, art history, and, in language, colour semantics. In vocabulary studies, a distinction is made between Basic Colour Terms (BCTs) and non-basic terms. There are many more of the latter than the former. BCTs must have certain properties to earn their title, for example their meanings must not be included in the meanings of more general terms. For instance, scarlet, the meaning of which is included in the meaning of red, cannot be a BCT. Similarly, a BCT cannot be contextually restricted (occurring only in certain contexts), so blonde and roan (mentioned in Section 1) cannot be BCTs. Non-basic terms (sometimes called ‘secondary terms’) are all the colour words which don’t qualify as BCTs.
Many of the basic colour words of Modern English derive from Old English, such as red from read; green from grene; yellow from geolo etc., but notice that blue has a different origin (Anglo-Norman bleu).
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that, because read looks like red, the two words must mean the same – this is not the case. There were no basic words for the colours purple, pink and orange in Old English, so these colours were included in the meaning of the most appropriate basic word, and that was read. (Anglo-Saxons could also use phrases or non-basic words to describe these colours, e.g. ‘the colour of the rose’ (pink) or ‘yellow-red’ (orange).) So, while Modern English red means ‘red’, Old English read means ‘red, purple, pink, orange’ (and probably bits of brown as well). Other colour words may also have different meanings from their modern equivalents. Be careful with your translations!
It’s difficult to ascertain the meanings of Old English colour words because we have no native speakers to ask. The meanings are worked out from looking at surviving instances of the words in literature, administrative documents, place-names, personal names, and so on. Compound words often provide some clues, e.g. musfealu tells us that fealu was the colour of the mouse, but that doesn’t mean that was the only colour denoted by this word, and we also have to check what colours mice were in Anglo-Saxon times (probably the same as today, but the colours of domesticated animals, like pigs, have changed considerably).
After the Norman Conquest, more basic colour words appeared, some adopted from Anglo-Norman, and some developed from Old English non-basic terms. Thus the Middle English forms of blue, brown and purple became basic, and in Modern English orange and pink joined the English basic colour vocabulary. As these colours acquired their own basic words, the ‘larger’ meanings of older basic words like read were reduced until they reached their present-day definitions.
Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay. 1969. Basic color terms: their universality and evolution.
Berkeley: University of California Press. [For the latest version of the order of acquisition of Basic Colour Terms, see Paul Kay and Luisa Maffi, ‘Color appearance and the emergence and evolution of basic color lexicons’. American Anthropologist 101.4, 743-60. Reproduced on p. 81 in Biggam (2012).]
Biggam, C. P. 1995. ‘Sociolinguistic aspects of Old English colour lexemes’. Anglo-
Saxon England 24, 51-65.
Biggam, C. P. 1997. Blue in Old English: an interdisciplinary semantic study.
Biggam, C. P. 1998. Grey in Old English: an interdisciplinary semantic study.
London: Runetree Press.
Biggam, C. P. 2004. ‘Prototypes and foci in the encoding of colour’. Categorization in the History of English,
eds Christian J. Kay and Jeremy J. Smith. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 19-40.
Biggam, C. P. 2006. ‘Political upheaval and a disturbance in the colour vocabulary of early English’. The Power of Words, eds Graham D. Caie, Carole Hough and Irené Wotherspoon. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 159-179. [explains the situation with blue]
Biggam, C. P. 2012. The Semantics of Colour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biggam, C. P. 2015. ‘English colour terms: a case study’. English Historical Semantics, eds Christian Kay and Kathryn Allan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 113-131.
Burnley, J. D. 1976. ‘Middle English colour terminology and lexical structure’.
Linguistische Berichte 41, 39-49.
Kerttula, Seija. 2002. English colour terms: etymology, chronology and relative
basicness. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.
Steinvall, Anders. 2002. English colour terms in context. Umeå: Umeå Universitet.
Ideas for essays or projects
Look at Berlin and Kay’s book, pages 5-7, and see how they define a basic colour
Apply their tests of basicness to some Modern English colour words, and see if you can find some
which are obviously basic, some which are obviously not basic, and some which are perhaps basic,
giving your reasons in every case. (You should know that other authors favour different means of
assessing basicness, but several of Berlin and Kay’s criteria are used by everyone.)
Retrieve as many Old English dye-names as you can (use ‘Browsing Searches’,
‘Matter and Measurement’, ‘Properties of Matter’, then click on each colour in the list under
‘A colour’ at 03.01.14). What are the sources of the dyes (e.g. plants, animals)?