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NATLANG: the theory of basic colour terms & Yéli Dnye

From:J Y S Czhang <czhang23@...>
Date:Monday, May 10, 2004, 17:11

The theory of basic color terms was a crucial factor in the demise of
linguistic relativity. The
theory is now once again under scrutiny and fundamental revision. This paper
details a case study
which undermines one of the central claims of the classical theory, namely
that languages
universally treat color as a unitary domain, to be exhaustively named. Taken
together with other
cases, the study suggests that a number of languages have only an incipient
color terminology,
raising doubts about the linguistic universality of such terminology.

    The present study was conducted in the context of an ongoing project in
linguistic anthropology on Rossel
Island, Papua New Guinea.

    The inhabitants of Rossel speak a language isolate, known variously
as _Yélî Dnye_, literally ‘Rossel language’, or _Yele_, _Yela_, _Yelentye_,
or simply _Rossel language_, whose
affiliation to any other languages has not been clearly established. There
are somewhat over 3500
inhabitants of Rossel, including one Australian missionary and some
married-in native speakers of
Austronesian languages (especially the languages of Sudest, Misima and
Nimowa). Yélî Dnye is
the single predominant language, although many younger people also know a
considerable amount
of English through schooling or outside employment. Rossel though is a remote
island surrounded
by difficult seas, served by few vessels and no air strip and is quite
isolated. Previous published
work on Rossel Island language is confined to a word list (Henderson &
Henderson 1987) and the
brief but invaluable grammar by Henderson (1995), whose practical orthography
is used here.
Although surrounded by Austronesian languages, Yélî Dnye shows little
evidence of influence by
them, and with its huge phoneme inventory and complex grammar is scarcely
ever mastered by
    There are some reasons to think that the Yélî color expressions may be of
special interest. First,
they are somewhat dubious ‘basic color words’, all being complex
expressions, and in all but
perhaps one case referring to objects with canonical hues. Second,
ethnographic observation
reveals little interest in color: there is no current artwork or handiwork in
color, with the exception
of baskets woven with patterns (usually natural vs. black/blue).

    There is a keen interest in the multi-denominational shell money, but
color is an unreliable clue to the denominational values, and there is no special
descriptive vocabulary. Third, the Yélî pattern of derived expressions with
primary metaphorical reference, and the low salience of the entire system, may
not be an isolated
pattern, but rather one with similarities to others in Australia and New
Guinea and perhaps

Linguistic analysis of Yélî color expressions

    Given the critiques of BCT theory above, it is essential to provide some
detail about the linguistic
properties of the local color terms. We need to know whether they are derived
or basic, whether
they are nominal or predicative, whether they come from a single form-class,
and if not, where the
breaks in form-class occur.
    Yélî (like perhaps most unwritten languages) has no superordinate word
for ‘colour’.
One would not normally ask what color something is; to do so one would be
forced to use the (non-colloquial)
English loan ‘color’, as in ló kala? ‘what color (is it)?’, an innovation
confined to those younger
people who have spent time on the mainland. Instead, one would normally ask u
pââ ló nté?, ‘it’s
body what is it like?’ or ‘its body how does it seem?’, which could ask for
any perceivable quality
such as size or taste (the same difficulties in eliciting precisely color
words were noted by Conklin
1955:341n for Hanunóo).

[...] In reference to colors,
there seem to be two major classes of expression. The first class is formed
by reduplication of

mtyemtye, or taataa  (glossable as ‘red’)
kpaapîkpaapî (glossable as ‘white’)
(glossable as ‘black’).
mgîdîmgîdî or mgidimgidi (glossable as ‘black, dark’)
wuluwulu (glossable as ‘bagi, dark-red’)

These are all reduplications of names of objects:
(i) mtye, or taa, ‘red-parrot species’ (these two forms are said to mark
minor dialect differences
along the northern coast, but in fact some informants use both).
(ii) kpaapî
(iii) kpêdê ‘tree species, yielding valuable nut’.
(iv) mgîdî ‘night’.
(v) wulu ‘juice, sap, spit’
    The color reference of the reduplicated terms mtyemtye (or taataa) and
kpaapîkpaapî is obviously
derived from the nominal reference: the red parrot is a startling crimson and
the white cockatoo a
pure white apart from its sulfur comb. The ‘black’ term is more opaque: the
kpêdê tree has a
brown bark and wood, and (as pointed out by an informant) its nuts are not
black until they are
roasted in the fire as part of the procedure required to render them edible.

The other ‘black, dark’
term mgîdîmgîdî is derived from the word for ‘night, darkness’ (as in mgîdî
vy:o ‘in the
night/dark’); mgîdîmgîdî is the normal description for dark (e.g. kpomo u
mênê ghi mgîdîmgîdî
‘cave its inside parts dark’ i.e. deep in the cave it is dark).

The ‘dark red’ expression has a
different semantic status, in that the reduplicated form has primary nominal
reference to the Kula-
valuable known to the Massim as bagi, which is manufactured on Rossel even
though the island is
not part of the Kula ring (the origin of the Rossel term is obscure – it may
be derived from t:aa
wulu ‘betel juice’).

    This class of color expressions is formed by a general, semi-productive
rule for deriving
adjectives from nouns by reduplication – it is notable that the color
expressions above do not
belong to the set of adjectival roots in the language (which cover notions of
size, as in ndîî ‘big’,
quality, as in dono ‘bad’, and state, as in kuu ‘raw, unripe’). Thus we
have the following terms for
describing taste, derived from appropriate nouns:

<1> mty:aamty:aa ‘sweet’ from mty:aa ‘honey’
<2> nj:iinj:ii ‘sweet, salty or spiced’, perhaps from nj:ii ‘a tree
species’ or more likely
ntii ‘salt water’
<3> kinikini ‘greasy’ from kini ‘fat’
‘nuwó’nuwó ‘bitter, sour’ from ‘nuwo ‘point’.

    The color expressions mtyemtye, kpêdêkpêdê and kpaapîkpaapî clearly are
parallel to these taste
terms rather than to basic adjective roots like ndîî ‘big’.
    The syntax of these and other modifier expressions is relevant to their
status as color terms. For
example, Lyons (in press) claims that ‘first-order’ emergent color terms
that lack context-
independent, abstract reference to hue might have primarily predicative uses,
rather than nominal
uses associated with ‘second-order’ abstraction. Therefore it is important
to know whether the Yélî
reduplicated terms are essentially adjectival or nominal. Although there are
clear tests for adjective
roots (Henderson 1995:67, 76), nominal and adjectival classes also overlap in
both semantic
oppositions (the antonym of e.g. kuu ‘raw, unripe’, is kîgha ‘ripe fruit,
ready for eating’, which is
arguably a classificatory noun) and syntactic potential (e.g. both can occur
as verbless
predications). But a useful distinguishing test is that in noun-noun compound
phrases the
modifying noun precedes the head noun (as do deverbal gerunds), while in
noun-adjective phrases
the modifier follows the head . Using this test, the reduplicated nominals
used for color reference
have adjectival status: one says _pi kpêdêkpêdê_ ‘man black’ for black man,
not the other way
    These derived adjectives thus occur inside NPs of the form:

[[Determiners][Head N][Classifier Nominal][Adjectival Phrase]]

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