How the World’s Languages Name the Rainbow.

Claire Bowern writes in The Conversation about her research into color terms:

My colleague Hannah Haynie and I were interested in how color terms might change over time, and in particular, in how color terms might change as a system. That is, do the words change independently, or does change in one word trigger a change in others? In our research, recently published in the journal PNAS, we used a computer modeling technique more common in biology than linguistics to investigate typical patterns and rates of color term change. Contrary to previous assumptions, what we found suggests that color words aren’t unique in how they evolve in language. […]

That there’s something unique about the stability of color concepts is an assumption we wanted to investigate. We were also interested in patterns of color naming and where color terms come from. And we wanted to look at the rates of change – that is, if color terms are added, do speakers tend to add lots of them? Or are the additions more independent, with color terms added one at a time? […]

In order to answer these questions, we used techniques originally developed in biology. Phylogenetic methods use computers to study the remote past. In brief, we use probability theory, combined with a family tree of languages, to make a model of what the history of the color words might have been. […]

Our results supported some of the previous findings, but questioned others. In general, our findings backed up Berlin and Kay’s ideas about the sequential adding of terms, in the order they proposed. For the most part, our color data showed that Australian languages also show the patterns of color term naming that have been proposed elsewhere in the world; if there are three named colors, they will be black, white and red (not, for example, black, white and purple). But we show that it is most likely that Australian languages have lost color terms, as well as gained them. This contradicts 40 years of assumptions of how color terms change – and makes color words look a lot more like other words.

I freely admit I don’t understand the method works (“we estimate likely reconstructions, evaluate that model for how well it fits our hypotheses, tweak the model parameters a bit to produce a different set of results, score that model, and so on”), and I’m curious what my readers think of the method and the results.

Comments

  1. What I think is the most interesting fact about color terminology is that there are four common hues that every human encounters: red (from blood), yellow (from the sun), green (from chlorophyll), and blue (from the firmament). Everybody basically agrees what a generic red looks like, because everybody has had a cut. There are not the same kinds of universal reference prototypes for other hues like orange, purple, violent, etc. So I would expect to see the evolution of color names to be different depending on which kind of color one is talking about.

  2. Voltaire, in the 6th of his Lettres Philiosophiques on Newton’s optics, gives the colors of the rainbow (or rather of the prism) as: Le premier est couleur de feu; le second, citron ; le troisième, jaune ; le quatrième, vert ; le cinquième, bleu ; le sixième, indigo ; le septième, violet. “couleur de feu” instead of rouge seems particularly odd.

  3. The Sun isn’t anything like focal yellow: it’s white light with a little of the higher frequencies removed by scattering. So I doubt that’s it; more likely flowers such as daisies, or else leaves in the fall. Snow is focal white, but not every culture has experience of it.

  4. January First-of-May says:

    So I doubt that’s it; more likely flowers such as daisies, or else leaves in the fall.

    Or sand (it can have a lot of assorted shades, but most of the time it’s some variety of yellow).

  5. Everybody on this thread, just read Deutcher’s second book (Through the Language Glass, I think) and spare all of us much idle subjective back-and-forth…

  6. Chinese don’t distinguish between green and blue.

    So let’s take them out from list of basic colors.

  7. It seemed a little suspiciously convenient to me that a well-known Australianist just happened to conclude that the Pama-Nyungan languages were ideal for studying this question; but I guess it might be a convention of the genre. 🙂

    I haven’t read the PNAS article, but from the article that you link to, it sounds reasonable to me; but I’m not sure how one would cross-validate the claim that “Estimates that are very consistent […] are highly likely to be good reconstructions”. Intuitively it makes a lot of sense, but how would you know?

  8. @SFReader: “Basic colors” are a language-dependent concept. So Chinese may not have distinct basic color words for blue and green, but that doesn’t change the fact that many languages do.

  9. The sun is, famously, red in Japan. (And the sky is grue, except under Sinitic influence where it is sometimes Cerulean, Lapis Lazuli, and other basic poetic colors.)

    Re sand, amusingly that is mentioned in the first comment, which asserts that English has many more basic colors than CB claims, e.g. the beige of sand, which no English speaker would ever call yellow or brown. (To be fair, “pristine beige beach” does sound like the sort of phrase that would appear in a despairing couplet by Larkin.)

  10. Probably irrelevant is the curious fact that F blanc and E black are from the same PIE root. The meanings coincide in the ON doublet blakkr (of white horses and black things).

    But at least it’s possible to conceive of a language with only two color terms, which are homonyms…

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    The question is not how many colour words a language has altogether, but how many words suffice to cover the entire spectrum. Speakers of three-colour languages typically have many more accepted and conventional words (or expressions) than three for colours, but any given colour can be correctly called by one of only three names. In English, it’s an actual mistake to call something “blue” if it’s green; not in a four-colour language. There’s also the question of whether the relevant colour terms have complex internal structure morphologically or semantically within the language in question.

    “Ash-coloured” and “grass-coloured” are both common and standard for “grey” and “green” across quite unrelated West African three-colour languages lacking simplex colour terms for those hues. Not at all surprisingly, when you think about it.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Seri language isolate of Mexico has six basic colour terms: white, black, red, yellow, green/blue, gray/brown, but there is no basic term for “colour”; according to Stephen Marlett’s grammar:

    There is no easy way to express the general word “color” in the language. If one wants to know the color of something, the opening question is ¿Zó hapácta ya? (literally, “How does it appear?” less literally “What is it like?”) which is understood as referring to color in the common situation. The fact that one is asking about color and not shape can be made clear by prompting the response with suggestions about the expected answers, such as ¿Cooxp ya? ¿Cheel ya? “Is it white?” “Is it red?”

  13. Hungarian has two words for “red”: piros and vörös. To non Hungarians, these look exactly the same, but to Hungarians, vörös is used for the Red Cross and red wine, piros is the colour of clothing and fruit, but that is just an approximation.

  14. Irish has “glas” for natural green (including some blue and grey) and “uaine” for artificial green.

    The green in the Irish flag is “uaine”, which interferes somewhat with the idea that it symbolises the verdant countryside. Of course, in the flag it symbolises the Catholic/Gaelic/Nationalist population, which is highly artifical; but nationalist adoption of green as a national colour is popularly ascribed to its natural prevalence.

    The flag’s “orange” is “flannbhuí” ‘flame yellow’ rather than “oráiste” ‘orange [fruit]’, despite the latter being used for political Orange

  15. Irish also has two words for red, “rua” and “dearg”.

    Color terms don’t depend just on hue, they also take saturation into account.

    “Glas” could correspond to English blue, green or grey, but with a similar low saturation.

    “Rua” is a low saturation red like red hair, but “dearg” is a high saturation red like blood.

    People who only know hue-based languages sometimes think this is universal, but it’s not.

    It takes three numbers to define a color, which can be chosen different ways, but hue, saturation and brightness is one commonly used approach. Some languages base color terms on just one axis, others might use two. I don’t know of any language that uses all three, but it’s possible.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve read the paper! 🙂

    I freely admit I don’t understand the method works (“we estimate likely reconstructions, evaluate that model for how well it fits our hypotheses, tweak the model parameters a bit to produce a different set of results, score that model, and so on”), and I’m curious what my readers think of the method and the results.

    Entirely unremarkable ancestral reconstruction using Bayesian inference (as opposed to maximum likelihood or simple parsimony). Using not just the topology of the trees, but also their branch lengths and a model of evolution, the program calculates probabilities for state changes along each branch ( = internode). The model contains probabilities for different kinds of state changes; these parameters of the model are themselves calculated by the program to fit the data as well as possible, but there is the option to set some of them as equal to each other or to 0, and that’s what the authors played around with. Notably, when they set the probability of losing color terms to 0, the program was unable to calculate the other parameters (“failed to converge [on a result]”).

    Or sand (it can have a lot of assorted shades, but most of the time it’s some variety of yellow).

    Latin had a word canis that covered things we’d call yellowish, like fields in summer, or gray. I’m not aware of a Latin word for “yellow”.

    It seemed a little suspiciously convenient to me that a well-known Australianist just happened to conclude that the Pama-Nyungan languages were ideal for studying this question; but I guess it might be a convention of the genre. 🙂

    The reason is spelled out in the paper: most IE and Austronesian languages are in stage VI, having words for brown, pink, purple and the like, while PN covers the whole range.

    Chinese don’t distinguish between green and blue.

    Well, 青 qīng does cover saturated greens, blues and blacks, but 绿 lǜ is just green and 蓝 lán is just blue, right?

    Apparently, 青 is what brown used to mean: dark and shiny.

    We can agree that Modern English brown, Modern German braun and Modern French brun (borrowed from Frankish) are “basic colour terms” and can be used to describe the colour o[f] a beaver’s coat. It doesn’t follow, however, that the same can be claimed of their Proto-Germanic ancestor, *βrūna-. In early Germanic languages the word meant ‘dark, swarthy, dusky’ (as well as ‘shiny, bright’, often with reference to forged metal or the sea), and while it could be used to modify virtually any hue for which there was a name, it was hardly a specific colour term itself. […] The “colour conspiracy” of the modern languages of Europe, which have developed identical or very similar basic colour systems, is a case of recent cultural convergence. As late as the seventeenth century, German braun could still refer to hues in the violet/purple range (e.g. the colour of the amethyst).

  17. Color coded names of Latin colors. Clever idea, but they unaccountable left out flavus (famously the color of the Tiber), and caeruleus and cyanus.

  18. @mollymooly: Another one of those counterintuitivities that I love – in the Irish conflict, the side that rejects orange has orange on their flag, while the side that embraces orange has none on theirs.

  19. No one’s going to discuss the methods?

    According to the anthropologist Harold Conklin, Hanunó’o has no basic color terms in the commonly understood, Berlin-Kay sense. What observers initially thought to be black, white, red and green turns out to be a two-dimensional continuum, with dark vs. bright on one axis and “dry” vs. “fresh” on the other, which, albeit prototypically “red” and “green”, may be realized as glossy vs. matte, or else as not purely visual, material considerations; “A shiny, wet, brown-colored section of newly-cut bamboo is malatuy [‘green/glossy’] (not marara [‘red/dry’])”. I wonder how many other “color systems” subtly differ in the very notion of “color”, without anyone having realized it yet.

    I’ve first heard of this in David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, which is a great little book.

  20. I’ve read the paper!

    Thanks for your dedication and very helpful commentary! (Which was, alas, held up in the moderation queue until I got up this morning.)

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Color coded names of Latin colors.

    Too bad it makes no attempt to separate the basic color words from the technical terms.

  22. per incuriam says:

    in the Irish conflict, the side that rejects orange has orange on their flag
    They don’t reject it, they embrace it, that’s the whole point of the flag (“cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”). Orangemen don’t much like this embrace of course.

    while the side that embraces orange has none on theirs
    That flag is presumably the Union Jack which is much displayed in NI to symbolize unity with Britain, just as the green, white and orange flag stands for Irish unity. There is symmetry insofar as the Union Jack contains an element representing Ireland.

    More striking surely is the absence of orange from the flag of the Netherlands. There can hardly be another country more strongly associated with a particular colour, certainly in the sporting arena where they even refer to their national teams as “Oranje”.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    It may seem even more striking than Italy’s failure to include azurro in their flag, but at least the flag of the Unified Nether Regions used to have an orange strip. Or maybe that was before the Regions were Unified. Anyway, at some point the standard was lowered and orange was replaced by red to improve visibility at sea. Soon red&white&blue became the colors to copy for every nation inspired by the freedoms of the Dutch republic. Back home the tricolor with orange maintained as a signifier of the royal family and by extension useful for occasions of special national or historical significance. And now it’s been hijacked by the darkest forces in the Dutch parliament.

  24. leoboiko: Berlin and Kay actually explored focal terms already. So the question they tried to pinpoint is not “What is the boundary between blue and green?” but “What is the best blue?” and “What is the best green?” In that sense, the Hanuno’o terms are color terms, even if they cover things that aren’t colored.

  25. Trond Engen says:

    Wikipedia once again can provide more details than me. I’d failed to notice the use of the flag by the WW2 collaborator movement, and even failed to remember Apartheid South Africa. So a considerable part of the hijacking took place before the current wave of darkening-rebranded-as-defence-of-light.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    On this subjects of flags, it has just occurred to me that there may be a Hatter who can put me out of my misery on an issue that has bugged me since I was about twelve:

    I was at a tiny travelling circus in northern Italy, and the crosstalk double-act team that filled in between animals and acrobats was telling jokes. One was about the Italian flag and the significance of the colours.
    “So: the red stands for the Communists, and the white for the Christian Democrats.”
    “OK! So what does the green stand for?”
    Unfortunately at this point my never-firm grasp of Italian gave out, and so I never got the punch line. It got a big laugh …
    I would imagine from the general venue and ambiance that it was probably a pretty corny old chestnut. Anyone know it?

    (This was of course long before there were such things as Green Parties.)

  27. gwenllian says:

    That flag is presumably the Union Jack

    My first thought was the Ulster Banner.

  28. per incuriam says:

    And now it’s been hijacked by the darkest forces in the Dutch parliament
    In the same way as the colour orange itself, which back in the benighted 17th century evoked the religious tolerance of the Dutch both at home and in their American colonies, was hijacked by the Orange Order, a protestant supremacist organization in Ulster, Scotland, Canada etc., directed at the exclusion and intimidation of catholics and others.

    @David Eddyshaw
    Perhaps the line played on “al verde” (“broke”), which often features in such jokes e.g. siamo al verde e passiamo le notti in bianco perché abbiamo i conti in rosso.

    The truth of course is that the flag is based on the pizza margherita (if not vice versa).

  29. The truth of course is that the flag is based on the pizza margherita

    Now that’s a flag I’d be proud to march under.

  30. ə de vivre says:

    Apparently, 青 is what brown used to mean: dark and shiny.

    Huh, “zagin” (𒍝𒆳 if you’ve got the right fonts installed), ‘lapis lazuli’, meant the same thing in Sumerian. Kings’ beards and Inana’s pubic hair (her “bearded mouth” as one incantation had it) in particular were apt to be described as “zagin”. Has anyone tried to connect Old Chinese to Sumerian yet? Maybe we could make some money off some overly credulous nationalists.

  31. @per incuriam, gwenllian: I meant both Unionist flags, and “reject” in the sense that prominently wearing or displaying orange – outside of the tricolor – would be an outgroup signifier for Nationalists.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    @per incuriam:

    Grazie mille. That looks really pretty plausible.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Has anyone tried to connect Old Chinese to Sumerian yet?

    Yes: the polysynthetic grammar of Sumerian has a few intriguing similarities to those found in various Dené-Caucasian branches.

    Further comparison is, of course, hampered by two things: 1) Proto-Sino-Tibetan and its grammar have not been reconstructed. Progress can be expected now that it’s dawning on people that the Rgyalrong and Kiranti branches are generally more useful for that than Old Chinese, Old Tibetan and Old Burmese, but a lot of work remains to do, not least because the family is really large and many of its easily 250 languages are still poorly known to science. 2) The Sumerian writing system doesn’t say as much about the sound system as we’d like, so it’s not hard to read regular sound correspondences into the material…

  34. “Blue” for shiny black hair is used in English too, and while’s it’s old-fashioned, it’s not obsolete. I associate it with Robert E. Howard’s vaguely antisemitic character descriptions. I always figured that was the meaning in “Bluebeard” as well, although that was originally French.

  35. t seemed a little suspiciously convenient to me that a well-known Australianist just happened to conclude that the Pama-Nyungan languages were ideal for studying this question; but I guess it might be a convention of the genre.

    Though sufficiently accounted for in this case by the wildly varying number of color terms in Pama-Nyungan languages, the general effect is indeed a thing, well exemplified by Teeter’s law: “Your reconstruction of Proto-X will always closely resemble the modern X language you know best.” This, says WP, does not appear in any writings by Teeter and is ascribed to Watkins in the form “The language of the family you know best always turns out to be the most archaic.”

  36. marie-lucie says:

    David E: There is no easy way to express the general word “color” in the [Seri] language. If one wants to know the color of something, the opening question is ¿Zó hapácta ya? (literally, “How does it appear?” less literally “What is it like?”) which is understood as referring to color in the common situation.

    Similarly in the Tsimshianic languages of British Columbia. In Nisqa’a (the one I know best) to ask about what colour something is, the singular is  Nda=hl wil-gat-t, the plural Nda=hl wil-loo-t. Gat usually means ‘person’ but as a verb it enters into compounds such as daX-gat ‘to be strong’, while loo is the normal plural of gyoo ‘(boat, vehicle) ‘to be motionless’. In each case the basic verb refers to the appearance or presentation of the topic. (Nda ‘which way, how’, wil ‘as, where, when’ depending on context).

    Lars: the curious fact that F blanc and E black are from the same PIE root. The meanings coincide in the ON doublet blakkr (of white horses and black things).

    I think that the common meaning must be ‘colourless’ and perhaps more generally ‘featureless’, as in English blank and bland.

    JC: “Your reconstruction of Proto-X will always closely resemble the modern X language you know best.” (or alternately “The language of the family you know best always turns out to be the most archaic.”

    Well, of course this may be a temptation for the linguist, but in my own work in comparative Tsimshianic the two language varieties (out of four) I have personally researched are indeed demonstrably the most archaic in both phonology and morphology. Both are necessary for proto-language reconstruction, while the other two varieties can largely be derived from the abovementioned ones (and the opposite is not true).

  37. Brett says: “Blue” for shiny black hair is used in English too.

    Interesting. I’ve never heard “blue hair” in that context in English, but it would explain the story of Bluebeard.

    In Croatian, “plava kosa”, literally “blue hair”, means blond(e). This has always puzzled me, but I have a theory that this usage may have come from the fact that blond people tend to have blue eyes.

    Another unusual hair colour word in Croatian is “sijed” for grey hair. The word “sijed” is not used in any other context except to describe hair colour, or people with grey hair. The usual word for grey is “siv”, and the word for white is “bijel”, but these words are not used to describe hair colours.

  38. SFReader says:

    Re: plava

    the word means light-yellow, blonde in all other Slavic languages. Meaning “blue” appears unique Croat development.

    The Kipchak/Cuman people were called Polovtsi by Russians. Perhaps these steppe nomads were also blonde and blue-eyed.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    Brett, zyxt: “Blue” for shiny black hair is used in English too.

    Some smooth and shiny black things do have secondary blue highlights. When I lived among native people, most of whom had black hair, some children really had bluish black hair. Among birds too, ravens seen in a certain light have bluish feathers.

  40. @marie-lucie: Blue light scatters more easily than red; Lord Rayleigh famously showed that the scattering cross section for light depends on the fourth power of the inverse wavelength and correctly concluded that this was why we see the firmament as being blue. It also explains why sunsets, particularly when there is a lot of dust or other material in the air, are red. Near the horizon, the sunlight reaches our eyes through more of the atmosphere than when the sun is overhead. That means more of the sun’s blue light is scattered away, leaving the direct sunlight looking redder.

    This is the explanation for a lot of blue hues that can be seen in nature, including both blue eyes and the iridescent blue highlights seen on some butterflies and birds. Any pigment that absorbs light will also scatter light, particularly around its edges. (When the size of the scatterer is less than the wavelength, there is actually always more scattering than absorption.) There is no blue pigment in human eyes, just the brown melanin that also colors our skin; however, when it is present at low levels, its primary effect is to rescatter blue light striking the irises, making them appear blue. As the amount of melanin increases, the scattered blue effect is overwhelmed by simple absorption, turning the apparent color to green, then brown, then black. (Incidentally, human eye colors come in 7 distinct shades, based on how many positive alleles for iris melanin are present; there are thus clear differences between light blue and dark blue, light brown and dark brown, and even light black and dark black.)

    With butterflies, the effect is similar, and having mesoscale structures in the wings that are comparable in size the wavelength of light enhances the scattering effect. With dark hair, the phenomenon is again similar, although not generally as pronounced. It takes particular combinations of lighting, hair hue, and hair thickness to get a noticeable blue scattering effect. However, it’s not surprising that the effect would be most pronounced among children, since they typically have finer hair, with more oblique edges to do the scattering.

  41. In Google translate news: you have to know 2 languages to translate a joke.

    I took what per incuriam suggested for an Italian flag joke on January 13, 2017 at 11:09 am: siamo al verde e passiamo le notti in bianco perché abbiamo i conti in rosso and gave it to GT. English translation went like this “We are in the green and spend the nights in white because we have the accounts in red”. Ok, being in green was already explained and accounts in red is probably cross cultural, but what are the nights in white? Russian translation nails it

    мы мели, и мы проводим бессонные ночи, потому что мы имеем дело в красном.

    “имеем дело в красном” is nonsense and “мы мели” is unexpectedly good (should be “мы на мели” = we are broken, literally we [ran] aground), but “бессонные ночи” = sleepless nights is the useful bit.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Re Teeter’s supposed Law:

    Perhaps a corollary of the undoubted truth that the language you know best will always be the one in which accepted theories tend to run into the most intractable difficulties.

    I recall reading a review somewhere of a paper by a German speaker on syllabification in German, in which the author eventually came to the conclusion that traditional accounts of the syllable were insufficient to account for the phenomena in German, which displayed uniquely odd features in this regard. The reviewer tartly observed that when the first academic paper on syllabification in Warlpiri [I think it was, but it doesn’t matter: you get the idea] from a Warlpiri speaker appeared, it would certainly show that accepted theories of the syllable could not adequately account for all the phenomena in Warlpiri.

    (You can of course avoid this problem by the traditional Chomskyan method of basing all your theories on the language you know best in the first place and assuming a priori that all other languages are fundamentally the same in all relevant respects. A sort of synchronic Teeter’s Law.)

  43. David Eddyshaw says:

    @D.O.:

    “White night” is familiar to me in English as meaning “sleepless night”, though it’s a bit old-fashioned/affected-sounding.

  44. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    There was a movie in the 80s with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines called “White Nights.” I wonder if the title alludes to the expression.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    The Kipchak/Cuman people were called Polovtsi by Russians. Perhaps these steppe nomads were also blonde and blue-eyed.

    Not sure about blue-eyed, but many Tatars today are blonde.

    I recall reading a review somewhere of a paper by a German speaker on syllabification in German, in which the author eventually came to the conclusion that traditional accounts of the syllable were insufficient to account for the phenomena in German, which displayed uniquely odd features in this regard.

    To be fair, two other factors than the mentioned undoubted truth come into play here.

    One is that people always seem to start from the assumption that Standard German has a single phonology. The idea that “lax” vowels can only appear in stressed syllables when those are closed makes perfect sense e.g. in Austrian Standard German (with exceptions in loans), and is necessary (as a general rule with exceptions) once you try to figure out the pronunciation of a word from its spelling – but here in Berlin it strikes me as just silly. The usual fix is to assume “ambisyllabic consonants”, which begin the next syllable but also close the previous one despite being short; I think that’s quite unparsimonious. Let go of the strained assumption that Standard German has a single phonology, assume a few regional ones, and I’m sure all will fall into place.

    The other is the spectrum of “syllable language” vs. “word language”, where German is unusually close to the “word language” end, having more word-based and fewer syllable-based rules than the world average by quite a margin. Here, too, different kinds of Standard German have different amounts of both kinds of rules. Warlpiri is much closer to the “syllable language” end.

  46. January First-of-May says:

    There was a movie in the 80s with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines called “White Nights.” I wonder if the title alludes to the expression.

    More likely it alludes to literal white nights (i.e. midnight twilight – the subarctic version of the polar day).

  47. Another unusual hair colour word in Croatian is “sijed” for grey hair. The word “sijed” is not used in any other context except to describe hair colour, or people with grey hair.

    That root is very familiar to me from Russian седой (OCS сѣдъ < *хоidо-).

    There is no blue pigment in human eyes, just the brown melanin that also colors our skin; however, when it is present at low levels, its primary effect is to rescatter blue light striking the irises, making them appear blue. As the amount of melanin increases, the scattered blue effect is overwhelmed by simple absorption, turning the apparent color to green, then brown, then black.

    If I ever knew that I’d forgotten, and I will probably forget again because it’s so counterintuitive, but for the moment I am glad to know it!

  48. SFReader says:
    Re: plava
    the word means light-yellow, blonde in all other Slavic languages. Meaning “blue” appears unique Croat development.

    Thank you for that – I was not aware of it. All along I happily assumed that the “blue” meaning is cognate to the German Blau. So this prompted me to look at the dictionary.

    The Croatian Encyclopaedic Dictionary definition for “plav” is: 1 colour of the clear sky 2 light yellow, yellowish (of hair). The etymology given is: Pre-Slavic *polvъ (white, yellowish), Old Slavic plavъ, Lithuanian palvas (pale) <deriving from PIE *polwo- (pale); cognates: Latin pallidus, Greek poliós.

    Another hair-specific colour in Croatian is "rus" for reddish hair, but this is an archaic usage. The normal Croatian usage for humans with red hair is “crvenkast” or “crvenokos”, and for animals and occasionally for humans – “riđ”. eg. Riđobradi = Redbeard.

    The usual Croatian word for "green" (zelen) has a specific meaning when describing the colour of domestic animals, especially horses, where it means "grey". Etymology according to the Croatian Encyclopaedic Dictionary is: Old Slavic & Pre-Slavic zelenъ <deriving from PIE *g'helh3-; cognates: Greek khlōrós, Sanskrit hari-.

  49. Proto-Slavic *śĕdъ (*ś < *x is the result of the second palatalisation). Cf also Polish szadź ‘hoarfrost’, and Czech šedivý ‘grey’, Old Polish szedziwy ‘grey-haired, aged’, folk-etymologised as sędziwy ‘very old’ (as if from sąd ‘judgement’) in Modern Polish.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    David E: Thank you for the lesson on colours! I had no idea.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    “White night” is familiar to me in English as meaning “sleepless night”, though it’s a bit old-fashioned/affected-sounding.

    I don’t think I have ever run into this phrase in English, but une nuit blanche for ‘a sleepless night’ (a night plagued with insomnia, not a night of revelry) is very common in French, part of everyday vocabulary, and the English phrase must be a literal translation of it.

    As for the Russian “white nights”, I remember long ago learning that it referred to the light-filled nights of the upper latitudes (causing people to remain awake). Is there a parallel phrase for the light-deprived days of winter?

  52. @January First-of-May: That meaning of “white nights” is totally unfamiliar to me, although I confess that I have never lived near enough to the arctic* circle to have observed the phenomenon firsthand. (I did see the aurora borealis in Indiana, but it was very faint. My boss at the time, another particle physicist, was jocularly annoyed that I hadn’t called him to tell him about it at the time, but by the time I was sure of what I was seeing, it was almost dissipated.) I recently watched the British (as opposed to Swedish) series Wallander on Netflix, and in one episode I was initially annoyed by the poor quality of day-for-night shooting; it didn’t seem even plausibly dark enough to be midnight in the scenes. But then I remembered that the show was taking place in northern Sweden a few days after the summer solstice, so the gray midnight light was probably exactly right.

    However, I would not have posted all this, were it not for a linguistic point that struck me as I was reading about that film. The Wikipedia article for White Nights refers to Gregory Hines’ character as a “defector” to the Soviet Union. In my socio-politico-idiolect, it is not possible to “defect” from a free country. In 1985, the United States placed no restrictions on its citizens’ ability to travel to, and dwell in, the Soviet Union. Moreover, unless an American officially renounced their citizenship, no amount of time spent behind the Iron Curtain would prejudice their ability to return to the United States. So the notion of a “defector” from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. is basically nonsensical to me, although I am not sure whether others would share this linguistic judgement.

    * I first typed “artic” there and wasn’t bothered by it, which is interesting, since I never pronounce the word that way myself.

  53. marie-lucie says: une nuit blanche for ‘a sleepless night’ (a night plagued with insomnia, not a night of revelry) is very common in French.

    First time I heard about “white nights” was from the title of a Belgian comic “Nuit blanche pour les gorilles” by Berck & Raoul Cauvin. I always thought it was a French phrase for “sleepless night”.

  54. When one uses the expression białe noce in Polish, it always refers to subarctic summer nights, prototypically associated with St. Petersburg.

  55. Lars (the original one) says:

    In Danish lyse nætter is the usual term for the not-very-dark nights at midsummer, while hvide nætter is mainly found in work titles translated from other languages and in marketing efforts for packaged vacations to Peterburg in that season. (But not for Stockholm, for instance, even though the latitude is roughly the same).

    I’m pretty sure that one acquaintances has also used hvide nætter to me in the sense of working until dawn on something (like a thesis due the next day). Which may have been their own extrapolation from Dostoevsky, because I find no corroboration anywhere.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    Only found associated with St. Petersburg in German.

    Hasn’t the Tiber been called “blond”? And is flavus “blond” cognate with blue?

  57. In my socio-politico-idiolect, it is not possible to “defect” from a free country.

    I think you defect not from the U.S. but from the U.S. government, especially the intelligence agencies; by voluntarily joining such an agency, you put restrictions on your future actions that can be enforced. The U.S. has no Official Secrets Act, so it is not illegal to know or even publish a secret if you have learned it from someone else without having signed a non-disclosure agreement — but the someone can be punished criminally for leaking it, so the relationship between the someone and the U.S. is not simply contractual, as is the case for corporate non-disclosure agreements.

    In broader terms, someone who quits Microsoft and joins Apple in a high-profile way could be called a defector. Similarly, someone who crosses the aisle in Congress or Parliament would definitely be a defector to me. The common factor is leaving one of two mutually hostile organizations and joining another.

    I wonder if the two different meanings of ‘white night’ have a common origin: people who are not used to Arctic nights often have trouble sleeping through them, so that extending the sense from lightfulness to sleeplessness would be a natural one among the more southerly peoples.

  58. I agree with JC’s analysis of defection.

  59. Yes, upon further thought, it seems fine to talk about somebody defecting from the OSS to the NKVD. I don’t accept a tap dancer defecting to the Soviets though.

  60. SFReader says:

    -In my socio-politico-idiolect, it is not possible to “defect” from a free country.

    Reflects Soviet practice which reserved term “spies” exclusively for Americans and other imperialist folk, while their Soviet colleagues were referred to as “intelligence officers”.

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