Colour words and SLA
I’ve written about colour a bunch before. really. a bunch. But I’ve recently come upon an interesting argument. If it were just one person who I’d heard it from, I’d not be bothered, but since it’s come up on three separate occasions in the past month, I feel it’s at least worth addressing.
It’s essentially this:
[Language X] is inherently more difficult to learn, all other things being equal, because of the number of colour words it has.
The problem with this is that it was coming from various non-native English speakers, and it was in the context of comparing English to Chinese/Korean/Japanese/whatever. When pressed, they gave the example that English has “yellow” whereas their language has a whole bunch of words for various shades of yellow. Which of course isn’t really true. What was actually happening is that their own English vocabulary was limited when it came to colour words, so that they really only knew a dozen, if that. I know a number of Chinese colours, but I must admit I know very few in Arabic aside from the simple common colours like red, blue, green, purple…
The interesting thing to me on colour terms in a language is how flexible they are over time. Orange didn’t exist until recently in English, and the word is actually referring to the fruit. Arabic has this as well, though the word in Arabic for the fruit is برتقال, which is nearly identical to the word for Portugal, برتغال. This may be due to the likelihood that the Portuguese brought the fruit to the Near East. The colour name, in Arabic, is برتقالي, simply an adjectival form of the fruit. Chinese, as well, has 橙色, “orange coloured”, as the colour term. Pink, as well, was named after a flower in the genus Dianthus called “pinks”.
Regardless of whether or not there’s anything to the argument about language complexity (there isn’t), it’s an interesting way to compare languages for a new learner of a second language. I wonder if anyone has encountered this before. I’d love to hear about it if you have.