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[ontolog-forum] Anthropology of Colour

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "Barker, Sean (UK)" <Sean.Barker@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 13 Mar 2008 10:21:57 -0000
Message-id: <E18F7C3C090D5D40A854F1D080A84CA4C3F50D@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>

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contrary non-withstanding. It is the opinion of the author, and does not
represent an official company view.    (01)

Last June, someone mentioned a book "Anthropology of Color", MacLaury,
Paremei, Dedrick eds. The start point for much of the discussion is
Berlin and Kay's theory of Basic Colour Terms (BCT), which hypothesises
that there are eleven BCTs, and that a language progress by adding the
initial seven terms incrementally, and in the order black, white, red,
green, yellow, blue and brown, and then purple, grey, pink and orange
being added in any order. This hypothesis was test over a variety of
languages.    (02)

This kind of theory seems a gift to ontologists, since it suggests that
there is the possibility that one can create a single, systematic
ontology of colour. My impression is that this book makes such a view
untenable.    (03)

BCT dates from the 1960's, a period where WASP culture was dominant, and
it was legitimate to view other cultures on the evolutionary path, which
would tend to that direction. I gained the impression that BCT was based
on a form of cultural imperialism, which set the terms of the
investigation in terms of its own colour model (this may be unfair on
Berlin and Kay - I have not read their original work).    (04)

"Anthropology of Color" provides a series of essays on various aspects
of colour language research, from studies on the locus of colour terms
(which is the bluest blue?), through ancient Egyptian terms and changes
in Japanese since 400 CE, through to the semiotic aspects of colour -
why can we buy a "cherry red" car, but not a "rust red" one?    (05)

What I suspect is that BCT is a theory of colour couched specifically in
terms of abstract hue, as exemplified by a set of standard colour
samples. This excludes colour terms which relate to specific materials,
such as "blonde", as in "blonde hair". That is, the evidence that seeps
round the edges is of languages with rich non-abstract colour
vocabularies, rather than abstract BCTs.    (06)

Further, what has happened since the sixties has been a broadening in
the concepts of colour, to look at the connotive aspects, and,
particularly in areas such as art or fashion, to use colour as a carrier
of concepts. That is, there is a continuing evolution of the
conceptualisation of colour from an adjectival to nominal concept -
noting that in ancient Egypt, colour terms were verbs (to become red)
rather than adjectives. (English has verbal forms for the first three
terms in the BCT sequence - blackening, whitening, reddening, but not
*bluening, with greening having restricted usage not *greening a shirt).    (07)

That is, any ambition to create a taxonomy of colour already embeds
cultural assumptions which may not be universally accepted, which will
be only a partial description of perception, and which may need to
change over time.    (08)

This seems to be an argument for a lattice of ontologies, on John Sowa's
model, and against any claim that that there is some basic set of
concepts which a "the ontology" can be built from.    (09)

By the way, Russian has two additional basic colour terms, "Sinij"
translated dark blue, and "Goluboj" translated light blue, which seem to
the Russians as different as Red and Pink, or Orange and Brown.    (010)

Sean Barker
BAE SYSTEMS - Advanced Technology Centre
Bristol, UK
+44(0) 117 302 8184    (011)

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Registered Office: Warwick House, PO Box 87, Farnborough Aerospace
Centre, Farnborough, Hants, GU14 6YU, UK
Registered in England & Wales No: 1996687    (012)

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