Towards a history and typology of color categorization in colloquial Arabic

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The word stock of Old Arabic attested in the Pre-Islamic literature displays by far the most elaborately lexified color paradigm attested within the Semitic language family. The present article surveys color usage in the modern Arabic colloquials (both Eastern and Western) from a diachronic angle and suggests that a qualitative evolutionary shift from brightness to hue categories coincided roughly with the sedentarization of Arabicspeaking nomads which brought them in contact with basic color systems of sedentary communities influenced by the dyer’s palette. The Old Arabic five-term color system (abyad. ‘white, bright’, aswad ‘black, dark’, ah. mar ‘red, light brown’, axd. ar ‘green, blue, black’, and as. far ‘yellow’; Fischer 1965) paralleled in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic lies at the basis of most modern colloquial color paradigms. Whereas urban Arabic vernaculars spoken, for instance, in Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, etc., display systems approximating the Berlin/Kay eleven-term paradigm, co-territorial semi-nomadic communities tend to retain archaic color paradigms with fewer basic categories alongside a rich non-basic nomenclature encoding predominantly ecological hues.


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