Friday, August 10, 2007

White noise

A few weeks ago, I doubted a NewScientist interview in which linguist Annie Mollard-Desfour makes the claim that to a Japanese person the brightness of a colour is more important than its hue and that the Japanese language has a large number of words for white, "from the dullest to the most brilliant". In the August 4 issue, Mollard-Desfour responds.

"The importance accorded in Japanese culture to matte-gloss and brightness distinctions is mentioned in numerous linguistics papers dealing with the cultural aspects of language and of naming - as are these features of Inuit language. True, some linguists currently propose that we need to distinguish terms for an abstract "true white", that does not refer to any particular instance of "whiteness", from those that refer to materials such as snow. Japanese certainly has terms for "white in general" and others linked to particular instances of whiteness: and

It remains the case that the lexicon of colours is difficult to understand and to translate, because the parameters used may be fundamentally different. Hence the controversies: what words translate the French blanc - and are the whites of snow or other bearers of whiteness true colour terms?"

The dictionaries to which she links return the following results when you search for blanc.

  1. *白 white (noun)
  2. *白い white (adj)
  3. *ホワイト white (Japonification of the English word white, used in brands etc.)
  4. *ブランク white (Japonification of the French word blanc, used in brands etc.)
  5. 修正液 white out correcting fluid
  6. 卵の白身 the white of an egg (as distinct from the yoke)
  7. 白目 the white of an eye (as distinct from the iris & pupil)
  8. 笹身 white meat (of a chicken)
  9. 白樺 white birch
  10. 白馬 white horse
  11. 白黒 black and white
  12. 白血球 white blood cell
  13. 白鷺 white heron
  14. 白熊 polar bear
  15. 白紙 white (i.e., blank) paper
  16. 白米 white rice
  17. *真っ白 pure white (opposite of pitch black)
  18. 白髪 gray hair
  19. *灰白 gray (ash white)

The items with an asterisk are the only ones that are actually colour terms, the others merely denoting white things. If you then search for 白 and include only the colour terms, you can add the following to the list:

  1. 青白 pale; green (said of a person who is feeling queasy or shocked; literally blue white)

So there you are. If we stretch it, we can find 7 words for white. And they don't exactly describe a continuum from the dullest to the most brilliant.

Now we can start looking for other words that signify white. Parchment, for example is 灰味黄 (ashy yellow; literally ash flavour yellow), and pearl comes out as 真珠色 (pearl colour), ivory is 象牙色 (elephant tusk colour), etc. If you're really keen, you can have a look at a list of Japanese colour names by kana order here (in Japanese).

I put the issue to Language Logger Bill Poser. He writes.

"That is very curious. My reaction is the same as yours...

I wonder if Mollard-Desfour has got hold of a warped idea about the classical color terms, the ones like imayauiro "red" found in beautiful charts in the endpapers of classical dictionaries, used, as far as I know, basically for describing the colors of kimono in Genji Monogatari? Some of those distinctions might be described in terms of brilliance, but the system still doesn't have multiple types of white."

By they way, I can't find anything on Google scholar about "the importance accorded in Japanese culture to matte-gloss and brightness distinctions" but maybe I'm not looking in the right place or perhaps it's all in French.

[I just got my print-edition of NewScientist, and despite the tag "From issue 2615 of New Scientist magazine, 04 August 2007, page 21" on the web, my letter and Mollard-Desfour's response are not printed]

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