Friday, July 13, 2007

Japanese words for white

In a NewScientist interview, linguist Annie Mollard-Desfour claims 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".

I'm afraid that despite spending ten years in Japan I had never noticed any of this, so I put it to my Japanese wife. She was as perplexed as me. We had a look in the Kenkyusha New English-Japanese Dictionary, 5th ed., and could find only a single translation for the colour white, well 2 actually: the adjective 白い and the noun 白. Oh, there were words like クリーム(cream) and compounds like 雪白 (snow white), and even metaphorical uses meaning pure, snowy, Caucasian and what have you, but only one word for the colour white.

This, of course, brings to mind the great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and the endless snowclones that people love to rehearse in exoticising a language or a people.

Yet, since Mollard-Desfour is a linguist and a lexicographer, I'm sure she's not simply making this stuff up. I, therefore, sent a letter to NewScientist requesting clarification. I look forward to seeing the examples or citations that my wife and I must have overlooked.

[See the follow up here]


The Ridger, FCD said...

I hope you're not holding your breath!

Brett said...

Shhh... I'm being vewy vewy dipwomatic.

GAC said...

I can't really say, since I can't read the full article, but she may also have been misquoted.

Brett said...

Yes, it's possible that she was misquoted, but it is an interview. Here's the relevant section:

NS: Why should brightness matter less now?

M-D:It's hard to say. Possibly we lost the religious connotations that gave us the dazzling light of truth and the impenetrable black of hell. Interestingly, the brightness of a colour is more important to a Japanese person than its hue - that is, whether it is red, blue, yellow... The Japanese language has a large number of words for white, from the dullest to the most brilliant.