Saturday, January 05, 2008

Colour vision and language shift

In a brief Edge article (see LH), Lera Boroditsky makes the thought-provoking remark - regarding perception of colours - that “It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.” If this is so, what happens when pretty much every speaker of a given language is also fluently bilingual in another one which divides up the spectrum (or indeed the world) differently - as has been the case here in Tabelbala for at least two generations? As it happens, some of my recent work here points to an answer.

I've recently been examining the colour system of Kwarandjie, trying out the second half of the Berlin and Kay tests (focus identification) with a number of speakers (well, 13 so far.) Of course, like all speakers of Kwarandjie, they are bilingual in Algerian Arabic; in fact, many of the speakers tested speak Arabic better than Kwarandjie. The colours they see turn out to be remarkably consistent, with more or less the same foci from speaker to speaker: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (as well as some secondary colours, most commonly pink (Arabic wəṛdi or, in reference to a darker shade, ħənnawi), that are less widely agreed on.) However, the words used to refer to “green” and “blue” show significant variation. For some speakers, zəgzəg means “blue” and “green” is (Arabic) xḍəṛ; for others, zəgzəg means “green”, and “blue” is (Arabic) ẓərrig!

It doesn't require too much speculation to think up a scenario to explain this. A few generations back, Kwarandjie must have had a five-colour system, featuring (like Japanese aoi, for example) a colour zəgzəg which covered both green and blue, whose focus was somewhere between the two. As speakers grew more fluent in Arabic, this focus split; they came to see both green and blue. Depending on whether they more frequently heard older speakers refer to, for example, plants or the sky as zəgzəg, they decided it meant one colour or the other, and gave the other colour an Arabic name; but different choices were made in different families. In the coming weeks I hope to gather more evidence on the issue - in particular, to learn whether even older speakers than those examined see a single colour grue or not.

12 comments:

Awal nu Shawi said...

Happy Holidays, nomad soul :)

Interesting! The colors green/blue cause a bit of confusion among shawi communities. Some communities use azizaw to refer to the green color; other communities use the same term to refer to the blue color.

John Cowan said...

Amazing stuff. Do, please, keep us posted about what you discover with the older speakers.

khawaji said...

In Mauritanian Hassaniya akhdhar means both green and blue, but everyone still sees and distinguishes between the two. blue is akhdhar as-sama'and green is akhdhar an-na'na' (sky and mint, respectively). I was surprised about how you wrote blue there (Zerrig), ostensibly from MSA azriq, but with the emphatic Z, and the consonant shift, it looks remarkably like Hassaniya Zrig, the milky yoghurt drink which, I thought came from Zenaga nomenclature...

Lameen Souag said...

Interesting about Hassaniyya and Chaouia - thanks guys! Emphatic z is expected in 'azraq for any North African Bedouin dialect; they say ẓṛəg even in parts of my area on the coast. I don't know what Zrig looks like, but if some connection can be made with "blue", then it's probably of Arabic rather than Zenaga origins.

mark said...

What's with the reduplication of zəgzəg? Are more colour terms (or other words in the language) reduplicated like this?

redcatblackcat said...

Does this mean that the -rr- is emphatic, too? And just left unmarked because it's predictable from the emphatic /Z/? And if so, is the diachrony ironically the reverse, i.e. that the historical /z/ picked up emphaticness (emphasis, emphaticity) from said /RR/? Or am I wildly off the mark?

khawaji said...

I am pretty sure that Zrig is meant to be white, unless you are offered, as I have been on occasion "Zrig Amriki" which is the same milky yogurt drink mixed with Coca-Cola. blecchh. But anyways, Hassaniya is filled with strange emphatic consonants that I don't believe occur in other Arabic dialects, including ra, ba, mim, and lam. I was always under the impression that these came from Zenaga influence(which begins with an emphatic Z) because it is the source of most of the Hassaniya outliers. On the other hand I could never explain why رأس (ra's) should lose the glottal stop and turn the initial consonant emphatic, becoming Raas, but I think there is some pattern there.

David Marjanović said...

...mixed... with... Coca... Cola...

*faint*

Etienne (A.K.A. the friendly neighborhood Romance scholar) said...

Fascinating! The scenario you sketch is very reminescent of British Celtic languages, which have two terms, (Welsh)GWYRDD/(Cornish + Breton) GWER and (all three languages) GLAS, with the latter word referring to blue as well as to "plant-like" green, and the former to other (artificial) shades of green. But GWYRDD/GWER, unlike GLAS, is a Latin loanword: we must assume that before coming into contact with Latin British Celtic speakers used GLAS (or whatever its earlier form was) with the meaning "Blue-Green" and later differentiated the two colors because of the impact of the Latin loan.

David Marjanović said...

is a Latin loanword

The source must be viridis "green". In the Celtic languages in question, initial /w/ and /gw/ alternate depending on what precedes the word.

Glen Gordon said...

I'm aware of the differences in the semantic spaces of colour terms because of my study of Proto-Indo-European. It turns out that this reconstructed language probably had only "three colours": black/dark-hue (*ḱeiwós), white/light-hue (*h₁albʰós) and red (*h₁reudʰós). I apologize if some characters show up blank on your computers because I'm relying on unicode to write these words to keep faithful to traditional transcription.

The Ancient Egyptians also didn't distinguish 'blue' from 'green' in speech. So in Middle Egyptian, the term wȝḏ wr "The Great Green" (the name used for the Mediterranean Sea) might also be translated as "The Great Blue". Or... for that matter "The Great Grue" :)

For those who want to pursue multilingualism and colour term differences further, there's a handy diagram of the 'Hierarchy of colour terms' in Nick Lund's book Language and Thought (2003).

It's a endlessly fun subject for geeky polyglots like me :)

Akli said...

Hello,

It's the same "problem" as in Kabyle Berber : Azegzaw means both green & blue.

Notice also that the Kwarandjie word for blue/green (zegzeg) is a loanword from Berber.

Akli.