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Colour and colour terminology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

N. B. McNeill
Psycholinguistic Laboratories, The University of Chicago


The continuous gradation of colour which exists in nature is represented in language by a series of discrete categories. Athough there is no such thing as a natural division of the spectrum, every language has colour words by which its speakers categorize and structure the colour continuum. The number of colour words and the manner in which different languages classify the colour continuum differ. Bassa, a language of Liberia, has only two terms for classifying colours; hui and ziza (Gleason, 1955: 5). Hui corresponds roughly to the cool end of the spectrum (black, violet, blue, and green) and ziza corresponds to the warm end of the spectrum (white, yellow, orange and red); in Bambara, one of the languages of the Congo area, there are three fundamental colour words: dyema, blema and fima (Zahan, 1951: 52). Dyema includes white, beige, and natural (cotton) colour; blema denotes reddish, brownish shades; and finally fima includes dark green, indigo and black. Maerz and Paul (1930) list over 3000 colour names in English, but generally it is considered to have eight basic names: black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1972

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