Basic color term evolution in the light of ancient evidence from the Near East

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Ancient languages rely on concrete and specific meaning rather than abstraction, naming basic color categories differently than do the contemporary languages upon which Berlin and Kay base their universalist evolutionary theory. The ancient languages named red and blue with words transparently derived from precious stones; they applied these to more than one basic category; and they exchanged these traditions, and sometimes the terms. We find the evidence through interpretation of the same philological data used to support conclusions favorable to Berlin and Kay’s thesis. Superficially, the validity of Berlin and Kay’s thesis is thrown into doubt, as it would appear that it loses its “universal character” due to the neglect of the nuances visible in ancient languages: application of their hypothesis actually obscures the early evidence. Studying linguistic color expression of antiquity contributes to understanding color expression, thus improving overall insight into the evolution of color terminology.


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