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Re: [ontolog-forum] Anthropology of Colour

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "Barker, Sean (UK)" <Sean.Barker@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Thu, 13 Mar 2008 09:31:09 -0500
Message-id: <p06230901c3fee68cac6e@[]>
At 10:21 AM +0000 3/13/08, Barker, Sean (UK) wrote:
>This mail is publicly posted to a distribution list as part of a process
>of public discussion, any automatically generated statements to the
>contrary non-withstanding. It is the opinion of the author, and does not
>represent an official company view.
>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
>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
>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).
>"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?    (01)

And why can one never buy 'bile green' paint?    (02)

>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.    (03)

But there is also independent psychophysical 
evidence for color archetypes which are 
culture-independent. Not everyone calls our 
fire-engine red "red", but everyone agrees that 
whatever color name one has, that is the most 
typical example of it. Similarly with 'bright 
yellow' and 'bright blue'.    (04)

>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.    (05)

In both these areas, a much richer and more 
nuanced color vocabulary is essential. Maybe this 
is why women make so many color distinctions that 
are invisible to men (teal, cerise, ecru, etc.) I 
know that water-color painters, in particular, 
make color distinctions based on such matters as 
depth, transparency and granulation as well as 
the usual hue/chromaticity dimensions. And any 
painter knows that there are many kinds of black.    (06)

>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)

In my native dialect, "blueing" is fine. One can 
blue a shirt (it actually, for odd reasons, means 
to make it a brighter white by 'removing the 
yellow') and one can blue a gun barrel (which 
does mean to make it blue, originally by heating 
it carefully.)  "Blued steel" is a familiar term 
among collectors of old guns, knives and clocks. 
Greening has become a specialized word now with a 
derivative meaning, but one clearly related to 
the color. Ive never heard "oranging" used, but 
there is "purpling", which AFAIK is only used 
reflexively, ie it means to become purple (with 
rage or frustration, typically) rather than to 
make something else purple.    (08)

>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.    (09)

Slowly, though. A color ontology that works for a 
good few years and for a fair fraction of the 
worlds population would be as good as we are ever 
likely to get.    (010)

>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.
>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.    (011)

Or day and night?    (012)

Pat    (013)

>Sean Barker
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