Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review

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The description of colour terms in Ethiopian languages

Zelealem Leyew


This paper describes colour terms and related concepts in selected Ethiopian languages. It examines the inventory of colour terms and describes their formal and semantic structures. It also gives some insight on the categorisation of colour terms and their hierarchy from the most salient to the less salient and to the marginal ones. The findings show that the generic term colour does not always have a lexical equivalent. The most salient colour terms are black, white and red. Almost all languages considered in this study have simple names for the three prototypical colours with a complete agreement on the nomenclature among mother-tongue speakers. Nearly all of them have derived terms for the less prototypical colours: green, yellow, brown and blue. There are instances in which green extends to blue and black to brown. Grey is one of the most frequently used colours sometimes included in the white region. Pink, orange and purple are marginal colours showing fuzzy boundaries with the dominant colours: red and yellow. The colour white is metaphorically expressed by the words for milk, ash, foam, ice and cotton. Black is associated with darkness, charcoal, soot, devil and beetle. Red is associated with blood, fire, amber, pepper and dusk. The major source of colour vocabulary is the natural environment. The word for green is taken from the words for leaf, cabbage and grass. The word for yellow is taken from flower, mead, yolk, child diarrhoea, banana and honey. It is customary to find identical words for sky and blue; and brown, liver and coffee. The research endorses that lexical representation of colour terms relies heavily on the functional importance of a particular colour in life. This is demonstrated in the extended terms of cattle colours among the pastoral communities. The findings also confirm that languages vary in the number of colour terms. However, the presence of extended colour terms in some languages and small number of such terms in others does not mean mothertongue speakers are unequal in sensing and discriminating colours.

Keywords: Colour, language, culture, perception, nature
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