Saturday, August 23, 2008

Elephant Garlic, and Color in Old English (Part 1)

Elephant garlic
7/13. Elephant garlic, oil on linen on panel, 5x5 in.

Lately as I struggled to mix the right colors - say, decent shades (or tints?) of neutral gray - I would think about what I "knew" so far of how English-speaking people a thousand years ago would have thought of colors. I had a vision of their world (or the world they wrote about) that was tainted by all I had read on the subject, and I'd accepted the view put forth by some scholars that Old English color terms not only stressed brightness over hue, but also denoted aspects of surface texture or reflectivity. Basic-level color names then were taken to mean also dull or glossy or shining or glimmering, and so on and so on - to the point that I carried around this image of an "ideal" Anglo-Saxon world that was in half-shadow yet had very clear glints here and there of spearpoints, flickering sword edges, and dull-gleaming helmets - a diorama whose details were sharply defined though kept at an unfathomable distance behind layers of dark, honeylike varnish. Just reading about anything related to Old English felt like focusing a microscope on an amber-encased world of smoky, raucous mead halls on one hand and silent, glittering swans on the other; a world of shimmering gold and ivory contrasted against bloodstains and dark, colorless ocean.

So in that world, somehow "brown" (brún) when talking of metal could also be translated as "shining" or "bright" or "flashing," the actual hue of a brown (and dark) sword often being disregarded even by some recent translators in favor of some shine-oriented meaning. Examples from Beowulf:

seax getéah / brád, brún-ecg
"drew her knife, broad and bright-edged" (E. Talbot Donaldson, 1966)
"pulled out / a broad, whetted knife" (Seamus Heaney, 2000)

sío ecg gewác / brún on báne
"the edge failed, bright on the bone" (Donaldson)
"the blade flashed and slashed" (Heaney)

brún-fágne helm
"the bright-shining helmet" (Donaldson)
"the burnished helm" (Heaney)

How could the color brown, which was often used as a synonym for dark even into modern English, also mean bright? (It was just part of an evolutionist theory of color perception, as I'll get to below.) One etymological explanation was that there might have been confusion at some point in the evolution of the Germanic word with a similar sounding verb meaning "to burn/fire," which could have resulted in brún having two opposite meanings. But if, as in these examples, the word suggested that objects of weaponry and armor had been burned or fired, then the resulting appearance would still be dark and not bright. A more down-to-earth explanation is that brown actually described the dark coating on steel that had undergone the process of "browning" to make it less vulnerable to rust. So it seems it was a hue term after all. And as it does today, brown ranged into lighter hues such as that of parchment, though it wasn't until the 18th century that it earned a place among "basic" colors and was no longer a subcategory of black.

I summarize this last bit from a great book, Earl Anderson's Folk-Taxonomies in Early English (2003), which is chock full of this kind of semantic analysis - I love the interlibrary loan system, by which you can get your hands on expensive books on arcane subjects for only the cost of postage, like it was a movie from Blockbuster; and Google Books, where I found the book in the first place (and where you can
read much of it for free). I can't go too far before it just shows my need to read more, but for background I'll attempt to paraphrase some of it here.

Anderson defines a folk-taxonomy as "a hierarchical semantic system that lexicalizes a domain in human experience or in nature, such as colors, plant and animal life forms, seasons of the year, directions, or the senses." So, speaking of the semantic field of color (as our culture thinks of it), at the top of the hierarchy would be the taxonym, or general term, "color." At Level I are the so-called basic color terms, followed by Level II secondary color terms, Level III specialized colors, and so on. Following Anderson's example:
(0) Taxonym - color
(1) Level I, basic - black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, gray, purple, orange, pink, and possibly silver
(2) Level II, secondary -
crimson, scarlet, vermillion as species of red
maroon as species of red or brown
magenta as species of red or purple
aquamarine, turquoise as species of green or blue
(3) Level III, specialized -
Compounds like blue-green, red-orange, etc.
Comparative expressions like ash(-gray), chestnut, fireman-red, mahogany, etc.
Terms restricted to specialized semantic fields, like auburn, blonde, brunette; bay, palomino, pinto, roan, sorrel; ruddy, sallow, wan, etc.
(4) Level IV, more specialized, commercially coined terms used in automobile, cosmetics and paint industries, etc.
We are familiar with the notion of a supposedly "scientific" and unbiased color space representing hue, brightness, and saturation, but as Anderson sees it, "The scientific account is really just a refined elaboration of the modern western European concept of color." He adds that terms such as "piebald, pinto, and palomino cannot be described in terms of the scientific account of color. The expected response to this objection is that these are the names of patterns, not colors, but this is really only a way of marginalizing data that are inconsistent with a preconceived theory." He cautions that when trying to interpret an unfamiliar color system, it may not always be possible to make neat correllations to our way of seeing: "It might be misleading to assume that color terms in Old English are always lexicalizations or 'mappings' of the canonical trinity of hue, brightness, and saturation."

According to "mapping" theory, "languages are 'maps' of reality, and, although these 'maps' may differ from each other, they all relate to the same reality." Such a theory "assumes the intertranslatability of languages, such that anything said in one language can be said in another" - but anyone who knows a second language or has tried to translate between the languages of significantly different cultures knows this isn't true. Anderson therefore suggests that a language works not as a map of our universe, but of a sort of parallel universe. "Words do not relate directly to things as symbolic mappings, but they relate to each other in semantic patterns and systems that are approximately parallel to the interrelation of things in reality." We may also believe in the sufficiency of our language, but, however large a language's color vocabulary, there will always be a "poverty of names;" no language is sufficient enough to communicate everything and leave no semantic gaps.

To the hue-brightness-saturation color model, Anderson adds a fourth aspect: "focality." Folk-taxonomies (colors, plants, animals etc.) aren't all-inclusive hierarchies "capable of 'containing' all conceivable instances of a given category." Although, like scientific taxonomies, they are attempts to impose order on a messy world, they belong to linguistics and not science. He argues that the mind is less like a container and more like a searchlight, so we seek the places on which to focus. Focalizations vary across cultures, and across time, as the result of changes in material culture and the influence of other languages. Some cultures today focalize more or fewer basic colors than we do, and Anderson notes for example that Russian has two basic terms for blue, a "dark blue" and a "sky blue," both having equal significance in the color taxonomy (i.e., neither is a subcategory of the other); Hungarian has two reds, "a light red with a focus on orange-brown" and "dark red with a focus close to purple." Many cultures have what we call macrocolors, or more than one color categorized as one - the Dani people of Papua have only two basic color terms, a "macroblack" and "macrowhite."

Anderson says, however, that "the scientific account [of hue-brightness-saturation] is an excellent representation of concepts underlying the folk-taxonomy of color in modern English." So it is useful to us as a means to compare, e.g., the Old English color system with our modern English one. But again, we go wrong if we think that our only problem lies in matching names. That is, despite the familial relation between modern and Old English, our modern map* isn't congruent with the old one.... And this takes me back to what I had previously considered true about Old English colors. Today it is still assumed that the Old English terms stressed the colors' brightness/darkness or surface components, but why was that? And, on the other hand, so what? - I mean, how does changing from this incorrect interpretation ultimately affect how we see their colors?...

*On the subject of maps, it is interesting to see how the Enlightenment gridwork system of cartography used by Lewis and Clark differed from the method used by the Indians they encountered. One system gives a direction-oriented and supposedly all-inclusive view from above, the other a route-oriented diagram showing many directions at once as well as relative distance and the importance of landmarks encountered along the route (features shared by today's subway diagrams).


Jason Waskey said...

I think your backgrounds are gorgeous, Dan.

Deborah Ross said...

Dan, I just found your blog, and after admiring your work, I saw you, also, live in Hampton Roads. Maybe we'll run into each other some time.
I just want to say that your work is so interesting! First the gorgeous oils and then illustrations. Which do you rather do? I'll keep you bookmarked and I hope you keep posting.

HELENE J said...

Nice colours and atmosphere!

Nick Orban said...

Hey man, I just found your videos on Youtube! Awesome, I have always wondered how you paint.

Keep it up!!!

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