Etymologies of The English Words for The Colors Purple and Green Paper


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How basic are basic color terms? In America, toys for babies tend to be designed in such a way as to highlight things that people must think children need to learn, including the numbers 1-10, the letters of the alphabet, and colors that exemplify the basic color terms, especially red, yellow, blue, and green.

Would it have been the case that the names for colors were important to our ancient ancestors who hunted game, gathered nuts and edible plants, and crafted shelters out of trees and animal skins? We know that words that name basic elements in the human experience (mother, father, head, heart, blood, tongue, night, day, water, etc.) tend to endure for millennia in languages, although their exact meanings and pronunciations can change in different ways. This fact is one of the things that makes it possible for us to understand the relationships between languages and to reconstruct their prehistoric ancestral tongues. We know, for example, that the English word light can be traced back to a word in Proto-Indo-European that meant ‘shine’ as well as ‘light’ and that ended up in contemporary Spanish as luz, which is pronounced quite differently from its English cognate and doesn’t have the meaning that light does in a phrase such as Give me a light (so that I can smoke this cigarette).

The basic color terms in Navajo for black, white, blue, and yellow are polysemous (i.e, have multiple senses, as noted here) in a way that is similar to English light and is not uncommon for color terms in languages. For example, Sanskrit rudhira names both blood and the color red and the word cinza in Portuguese names both ashes and the color grey. The navajo color terms in question are ɬigai ‘white, east, dawn’, ɬizhiní ‘black, north, night, dark’, dootɬʔizh ‘blue, south, day’, and ɬítso ‘yellow, west, sunset’.


  1. Is the basic word for the color orange polysemous in English? How so? What is its etymology?
  2. Consider the etymologies of the English words for the colors purple and green and the Portuguese word for the color grey. What are the original meanings in the earliest ancestral Indo-European language to which they can be traced?
  3. Do color terms in languages, in general, develop out of words that name physical objects or phenomena that embody or symbolize colors, or do words that originally named colors develop into names for objects and phenomena in the way that is suggested for the English word bear in the Chalking Points etymology video from Lessons on Language Change?
  4. How did it work with the Navajo color terms, which are reflexes of words that have endured from prehistoric times? What do you suppose their original meanings were and why, and how does it make sense that they mean what they do now?

5. Because of their polysemy, the Navajo color terms are not in a one-to-one correspondence with any words in English. Does this mean that speakers of English and Navajo experience the world differently?

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