Saturday, January 19, 2008

color words

Learned an interesting tidbit the other day while on the way to work. Listening to the radio, and the guest on the NPR show (or it might have been PRI - six of one half dozen of another) was commenting on her study of languages. It turns out that not every culture has words for colors like English and many of the other western languages do. In fact, in some cultures int ehir language colors are either some variation of black and white, or they relate to a specific object. Orange, for example, is relatively new, so in Dutch it's actually a reference to China because that's where the oranges they ate came from.

The other aspect I found interesting was how sometimes even parts of speech play different roles. In English, for example, it's the nouns that are often the most important. In many of the Nati8ve American languages however, it's the verbs which have greater importance. Thus objects are referred to in phrases, often including a verb. This is also, for example, why a lot of those Indian names have a verb to them. (Think "Dances with wolves" or "Stand with a fist" for example.)

This of course leads to an interesting possibility when creating new cultures in writing. Rather than assuming they all relate to things in ways we are used to, what if they don't? I's sort of the old idea that the Inuit have seven different words for "snow." They don't, of course, what they have is different terms for different kinds of snow, but likewise the concept of a palm tree would be lost on them. So if you have aliens or fantastical races, you start having to think about what might be important in their culture/world, and how that might shape their language.

Which I for one, had not given much though to before.

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