Academic journal article Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review

The Description of Colour Terms in Ethiopian Languages

Academic journal article Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review

The Description of Colour Terms in Ethiopian Languages

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)


The study of colour terms: their nomenclature, typology and categorisation, has attracted the attention of linguists, psychologists and anthropologists for over a century now. The early studies by Gladstone (1858), Geiger (1868) and Magnus (1877) (cited in Saunders 2000) have served as foundations for the heated-debate on the connection between language and perception/thought thereafter. Arbitrariness (Saussure 1916), cultural relativism (Gleason 1955), the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses of linguistic relativism and determinism (Whorf 1956), colour universals (basic colour terms) (Berlin and Kay 1969) and the revisions by Kay and McDaniel (1978); Kay et al., (1997) and Kay and Maffi (1999) are among the most cited seminal works in the study of colour terms and concepts. The studies of Davies et al. (1992) on Setswana; Davies et al. (1994) on Chichewa; Davies and Corbett (1994) on Xhosa; Davies et al.(1994) on Ndebele; Perner (1994) on Anywa and Davis and Corbett (1997) on four Bantu languages are among the most important contributions produced on the problem in the African context. All these studies were theoretically and methodologically useful for the study presented with this article.

The purpose of this paper is to describe colour nomenclature in selected Ethiopian languages. It examines the inventory of colour terms and describes their formal and semantic structures. It gives some insight on the categorisation of colour terms and tries to rank them from the most salient to the less salient and to the marginal ones. It also attempts to explore how mother-tongue speakers of the selected languages perceive and interpret the visual world surrounding them. Four languages have been selected from each of the four language families, namely the Cushitic, Omotic, Semitic and Nilo-Saharan, making a total of 16 languages. The researcher believes that the inclusion of 16 languages whose speakers inhabit the different parts of the country makes the data and information diverse and thick.

Qualitative firsthand data were collected between 2012 and 2014 from 32 informants (2 from each language) who are mother-tongue speakers of the respective languages by asking them to name the colour names that they know and to explain their meanings. Informants were also presented with coloured objects in the surrounding and were asked to see and name the colour of each object. As supplementary data sources, the researcher's own field notes and earlier available documents (dictionaries and grammatical descriptions) were carefully analysed. The introspective method was also used to some extent. As stated in Dimmendaal (2001), the first method is most appropriate of the other methods because colour terms and their perceptions are culturally-constructed; and hence, the same colours may have different lexical representations for different things in the different languages or even within the same language. Since this paper deals with colour naming, it is more qualitative than quantitative, drawing more on anthropological linguistics than visual science in its methodology and data analysis.


Perner (1994, 169) writes that, "There is nothing which does not have a colour, on earth as well as in the sky". Colour is therefore a universal notion. Researchers have found out that the number of colour words in languages and the way their speakers perceive and classify them can vary considerably. For instance, Basa, a Liberian language and Jale, a Papua New Guinean language have only two colour terms (Gleason 1955; McNeill 1972). Dani, another Papua New Guinean language, has two colour terms, namely mola (for focal white and warm colours: red, orange, yellow, pink and purple) and mili (for focal black and cool colours: blue and green). In contrast to these, languages such as English have numerous colour terms (Taylor 2003). Though languages have huge differences in their colour inventory, researchers have given credence that every healthy person makes visual distinctions of colours alike. …

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