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The Colors of Elvish: A Linguistic Exploration
Color is a basic category of language. Every culture has terminology denoting color, yet they do not all categorize color in the same way in spite of the fact that the physiology of human vision is constant across all races and populations. In designing his Elvish languages, Tolkien naturally created words for various colors. This article will explore what color terms are available in Quenya and Sindarin and what significance these color terms might have as a reflection of Elvish society.
First, though, we should look at how humans (and presumably Elves) perceive color. Much of the following technical explanation is taken from Foley, Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction, in the chapter on ‘Color’, though greatly simplified for the purpose of this essay.
The Neurophysiology of Color
All the colors that we see are a combination of six basic colors: red, yellow, green, blue, white and black. For example, turquoise is a combination of green and blue; orange of red and yellow. Perceivable color varies along three dimensions: hue, saturation and brightness. Hue is the ‘coloredness’ of a color, its redness, yellowness, greenness or blueness. These are the fundamental hues, defined as oppositions, one pole excludes the other. Not all colors have hue; black and white do not, nor do their intermediate shades of grey. Colors with hue are known as chromatic colors; those without hue, achromatic colors. Saturated colors have vivid hues, while desaturated colors are like pastels. Brightness indicates the light reflectance of a color, from dazzling to barely visible.
So how do we perceive color? According to present-day theories, the human visual system consists of three subsystems. The first subsystem signals differences in brightness and is achromatic. The other two signal difference in hue, one for the red-green opposition and the other for yellow-blue. The system of oppositions explains the difference between pure hues and ‘mixed’ colors. Pure blue, for instance results when the yellow-blue subsystem signals ‘blue’ and the red-green subsystem is neutral, signaling neither ‘red’ nor ‘green’. Turquoise, which is a combination of green and blue results when the yellow-blue subsystem again signals ‘blue’ and at the same time the red-green subsystem signals ‘green’. Purple, on the other hand, results when the yellow-blue subsystem signals ‘blue’ and the red-green subsystem signals ‘red’. Such secondary, ‘mixed’ colors are thus cognitively ‘computed’ from input from the two subsystems. Slight differences in hue of, say, turquoise, reflect differences in the relative contributions of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ from the two subsystems. White, black and grey result when both the yellow-blue and red-green subsystems are neutral and the third subsystem of brightness is operative: high brightness signaling ‘white’, its relative absence ‘black’, with ‘grey’ in between.
Types of Basic Color Systems
A basic color term is defined on the basis of a number of criteria such as: (1) it is monolexemic, not composed of composite parts. Thus, the English bluish, or the Quenya luinicë with the same meaning, would be excluded; (2) it is not included, hyponymically, within another color term. Thus would be excluded the English scarlet or the equivalent Sindarin coll both of which are a kind of red; and (3) is attributively not restricted. Thus, the English blond which is restricted to hair and wood, or the Quenya russa ‘red-hair’, would be excluded. There may be other criteria, but these are the three main ones.
Every basic color has a focal hue, the best exemplar of a named color, and regardless of the number of color terms in a language, the focal hue is remarkably consistent across languages. So, for example, a speaker of a language with only three basic color terms will identify as the best exemplar of ‘red’ about the same hue as will speakers of English with eleven basic color terms, essentially ‘fire-engine red’. Exactly what hues count as ‘red’, however, will be less definite, not only across languages but within them.
Not all cultures have the same number of basic color terms. The maximum number of basic color terms seems to be fixed at around a dozen, but a language could have much less. If so, a given color term will be a composite category, covering a range of stimulus colors. So, for example, the Dani of Papua New Guinea have two color terms: mili, which contains black and darker browns and all the cooler colors, greens and blues; and mola, which covers white and the warmer colors, reds, yellows, orange, reddish-purple, pink and lighter browns. These color terms appear to denote both hue and brightness, so, one cannot actually speak of color per se, but rather must gloss mili as DARK/COOL and mola as LIGHT/WARM. (Foley: 154)
In languages with three color terms, the warm colors red-orange-yellow are separated out from LIGHT/WARM to have a three-way contrast: LIGHT, WARM, DARK/COOL. The focal hue for LIGHT is white, and for WARM red, but DARK/COOL continues to have variable foci in black, pure blue, or pure green. With four basic color terms, the situation becomes more complex with no less than five-attested systems. The two most common systems are: DARK/BLACK, RED, YELLOW, LIGHT/WHITE and DARK/BLACK, GRUE (blue and green), WARM (red and yellow), and LIGHT/WHITE. In GRUE, the focal hue is either blue or green or bifocal in both, but never a ‘mixed’ secondary hue such as turquoise, which is composed of both these colors.
A five-term system will generally categorize the colors as follows: DARK/BLACK, GRUE, RED, YELLOW, LIGHT/WHITE, although in some languages, GRUE may be split so GREEN is a separate color while blue is relegated to DARK/COOL or BLUE is separated and green becomes a composite category with YELLOW. Beyond this, the order in which other basic color terms emerges is apparently random. Thus, BROWN, GREY, and PURPLE appear as basic color terms in no fixed order, though ORANGE and PINK do generally appear to be distinctly late in their emergence as basic color terms. English has eleven basic color terms: red, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, white, black, grey, brown, and pink.
There does seem to be some universal patterns of color-naming systems which emerge across languages. So, for instance, no language has a word for ‘green’ unless they first have a word for ‘red’. Nor are all possibilities of terms allowed. For example, there is no attested four-term system with ORANGE, LIGHT/WHITE, YELLOW, and GRUE.
Some languages may have more than one basic color term corresponding to a single one in English. So, Russian has two basic color terms for BLUE: goluboj LIGHT-BLUE (sky-blue) and sinij DARK-BLUE, while Hungarian has two terms for RED: piros LIGHT-RED and vörös DARK-RED. (Foley: 159)
So, let us take a look at the two Elvish languages and see what we can determine about how the Elves ‘see’ the world color-wise.
The Colors of Quenya and Sindarin (and Valarin)
In devising his languages, Tolkien gives us several color terms, some of them basic, others not. If we examine the color terms that are common to Quenya, Sindarin and Valarin, we find the following words corresponding to English RED, YELLOW, GREEN and BLUE:
Color Valarin Quenya Sindarin
RED nasar carnë car(a)n
YELLOW tulca malina malen
GREEN ezel/ezella laica/laiqua laeg/calen
BLUE ulban luinë (lúnë)/ninwa luin
These, of course, are the primary colors which make up the red-green and yellow-blue opposition subsystems in our visual system. Does this mean that the Valar only see in these colors? Unlikely. Not being physical creatures, they probably ‘see’ in different spectra beyond the visible light spectrum to which humans, and presumably Elves, are limited, such as ultraviolet, infrared, electromagnetic, etc. These, however, are the only color terms found in Valarin that are recorded by the loremasters who made a study of the language. And we know that the forms of the terms are Quenyanized adaptations of the original Valarin words and utilized only by the Vanyar who are the closest of the Elves to the Valar. Neither the Noldor nor the Teleri appear to have used these Valarin constructs, but developed their own terminology based on Common Eldarin roots.
When we look at the color terms normally used by Quenya speakers and Sindarin speakers, we see that in all of them the words are etymologically the same. There are two terms, however, that do not correspond: calen for GREEN in Sindarin and ninwa for BLUE in Quenya. Ninwa occurs only in Qenya, the earliest form of the language of the Elves which Tolkien created (see BOLT1: Appendix, s.v. Nielluin) and so could conceivably be discounted as an ephemeral form later replaced by the more common luinë or lúnë, cognate of Sindarin luin. On the other hand, other color terms with the same -wa ending — helwa (pale blue), hiswa (grey) and narwa (fiery red) [see below] — also occur in Quenya, so it is conceivable that ninwa is a legitimate color term in that language.
The Sindarin color terms for GREEN are of more interest to us, in both etymological and anthropological terms. Tolkien tells us that laeg, which has the actual meaning ‘viridis; fresh and green’, became a poetical form for the color, replaced by calen. He also states that the Silvan form leg- was commonly used in compounds, thus Legolas, which in strict Sindarin would be Laegolas. In general, though, Sindarin preferred the word calen to designate that color we know as GREEN (Letters, no. 211, 297).
Why? What would induce the Sindar to substitute a word that had no etymological connection with the original word for this color? Tolkien does not say. He tells us only that calen originally meant ‘bright-coloured = green’ (see Etymologies, s.v. KAL-). Etymologically, KAL- was the general root word for ‘shine’ and its normal glosses in both Quenya and Sindarin include words such as cala (Quenya) and calad (Sindarin), both of which mean ‘light’.
If we think of the world which the Sindar inhabited prior to the arrival of the Noldor upon the shores of Beleriand, they lived under perpetual starlight. Light, as known in Valinor, did not exist. Colors would necessarily be muted even in the lighted halls of Menegroth. Then, Ithil rose and a brighter light swept through the lands of Middle-earth. Yet, even this silvery light was dim in comparison to the light of Anor which blazed forth seven days after Ithil first rose, casting her golden light upon all. And what did the Sindar see?
A world primarily made of green in all its myriad shades and hues, bright and fresh and no doubt glorious to their eyes. Surely, laeg was too small a word, not encompassing enough to describe what they were experiencing as they looked upon a world lit by the Sun, a world dominated by GREEN! Someone, some bard, perhaps Daeron himself, decided that a new word needed to be invented to describe this wondrous color and thus calen came into being.
I imagine that it took some time for the new word to replace the old, spreading from Doriath perhaps. No doubt the Noldor quickly adopted it and that helped its spread to the furthest reaches of the land. Eventually laeg became archaic and used only in poetry, if used at all, or as an element in personal names, and then usually in its Silvan form. Calen became the normal word for ‘green’ and we see this in a number of placenames: Tol Galen, Parth Galen, and Pinnath Gelin, to name just three. [galen/gelin (plural) are the lenited forms of calen/celin.]
So, how many basic colors did the Elves see? A glance at the following table will show that besides the four colors mentioned above we have:
Color Quenya Sindarin
BLACK morë* môr/morn*
*these words also mean dark, darkness
WHITE ninquë/fána (fánë) nimp/fain/faen/glân
GREY sinda/mista/hiswa thind/mithren
BROWN varnë baran
ORANGE culuina ****
Thus, Quenya ‘sees’ nine basic colors to Sindarin’s eight, though these languages may have more than one color term associated with that particular color. Since there are no Elves to whom we can go to ask to point to the focal hue for that particular color and name it, we have no real way of knowing which word the average Elf would choose. Tolkien tended to translate different color terms using the same English gloss. Neither language has a word corresponding to English PURPLE or PINK. This, of course, does not mean that the Elves did not have these words in their languages; rather, Tolkien never bothered to provide us with these terms. On the other hand, it is known that in some human cultures, ‘pink’ is considered a kind of red rather than a separate color, while ‘purple’ may be considered a kind of blue or even assigned to DARK/BLACK or associated with GRUE (Foley:159). An example of a real-world language where a single color term can cover more than one color is the Welsh glas, translated as ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘grey’ or ‘grey-green’.
The terms fána, fain and faen appear to be words associated with the whiteness of clouds and this could be considered as the focal hue for ‘white’, in other words the best exemplar of the color for that culture, although ninquë and nimp, both of which have the secondary meaning of ‘pale’, appear to be the most common terms for ‘white’ in both languages. This may be a case where we have two basic color terms for English ‘white’. Faen also means ‘radiant’ and its Quenya cognate, fana, was used exclusively to denote the ‘veils’ or ‘raiment’ with which the Valar (and Maiar) clothed themselves, with the added notion of ‘shapes of light and whiteness’ (PE17:26).
A quick glance at the words will show that the words in one language are cognates of the other. Again, there are some anomalies. We see glân as a Sindarin word for ‘white’, though etymologically, it means ‘clear’ (VT 45:13). Its one recorded use is as a title for one of the Wizards: Curunír ’Lân ‘Saruman the White’, and might be attributively restricted to being used as a title rather than as a basic color term, such as nimp and fain (UT:390).
We also see that Quenya has one more term for ‘grey’ than Sindarin: hiswa, derived from the root KHIS-/KITH-. From this root we also get words for ‘fog, mist’ (Quenya hiswë, Sindarin hith). Like ninwa ‘blue’, this is a Qenya word and may not have survived into later Quenya as Tolkien devised it.
Secondary Color Terms
As interesting as all this is, of more interest are the hyponymical terms, those terms found within another color term, such as scarlet as a kind of red, and aquamarine as a kind of green. When we look at these color terms we see a great variety:
Color Quenya Sindarin
golden-red culina/culda* coll*
*culda and coll can also be translated as ‘scarlet’
fiery-red narwa naru
copper aira gaer
gold laurë glawar
yellow-green wenya ****
pale blue helwa elu/gwind
sky blue menelluin menelluin*
*While this word appears only in Quenya sources, it can conceivably be found in Sindarin, cf. aran ‘king’ which is found in both languages.
snow white lossë gloss
shining white silmë silivren (also, glittering white)
silver telpë celeb
pale grey **** mith
silver grey sindë ****
golden brown varnë baran (also, dark brown, yellow brown)
light brown marya/malwa maidh/malu (also, fallow, fawn)
red-brown rusca rhosc (also, russet)
Again, we see how most of the terms of one language are cognates of the other. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note is that in both languages, the word for the basic color term ‘brown’ (varnë in Quenya and baran in Sindarin), is also used attributively for ‘golden brown’, ‘dark brown, and ‘yellow brown’. This is the only color in which we find this situation in both languages.
Just looking at the number of color terms available for each of the colors in both languages, it appears that RED, WHITE and BROWN have more attributive color terms than the others. If we add the basic color terms to the list we find that in Quenya RED has the most terms (five), while BLUE, WHITE, GREY and BROWN are equally distributed (four color terms each), but in Sindarin WHITE has the most color terms (seven), followed by RED and BLUE (four each), with GREY, and BROWN each having three color terms.
What does this mean in terms of Elvish culture? Probably not much. One can look at these words in one of two ways linguistically, externally and internally. Externally, we simply see Tolkien’s genius at work as he creates various words in both languages covering a whole range of color terms, both primary and secondary, noticing how he leaves out such colors as ‘pink’ and ‘purple’ for both languages, as well as ‘orange’ for Sindarin. This could have been a simple oversight on his part, though having given names for most of the colors of the rainbow (indigo is also left out), one would think he would come up with a word for ‘purple’, which is certainly a basic color in the English lexicon. Perhaps he did, but the term has yet to show up in any of his linguistic papers which are slowly but surely being disseminated.
Internally, of course, we can look upon the Elvish languages as ‘languages’ rather than as constructs, as real as English or Latin or Ki-Swahili. It may be then, that ‘purple’ was not seen by the Elves as a separate color, but as a kind of blue or lumped together with DARK/BLACK, as is the case with Berinmo, a language of Papua-New Guinea (Kay and Reiger: 7). English has devised a monolexemic term for this color, but some real world languages will use a compound word which literally translates as ‘red-blue’, as in the Welsh cochlas (sometimes listed as glasgoch ‘blue-red’), although they may ‘borrow’ a basic color term from another language: Welsh porffor derived ultimately from Greek porphýra via English. So if anyone wants to create a neo-Eldarin term for this color they could easily do as the Welsh have done: *carneluinë or *luincarnë in Quenya and *caranluin or *luingaran/luingarn in Sindarin. ‘Pink’, on the other hand, might merely be considered a shade of red. The Quenya term culuina ‘orange’ is very similar to culina ‘golden red’, its Sindarin cognate being coll. Thus, it is conceivable that the Sindar ‘saw’ orange as being a kind of red rather than a separate color in its own right, as we do in English.
If looking at the distribution of color terms as an internal aspect of the Elvish languages, one can possibly conclude that for the Amanian Elves (those born in Aman), RED was perhaps the most important color, but WHITE was the most important for the Sindar. The fact that RED is, even in our own culture, the exemplar of all chromatic colors (colors with hue), while WHITE is exemplar of the achromatic color (colors without hue), points to the environments under which the two Elvish cultures (Amanian and Beleriandic) developed: the Amanian culture developing under the bright light of the Two Trees; the Beleriandic culture blossoming under the light of the stars, where light and shadow predominate.
Tolkienian linguistic scholars tend to study the Elvish languages as external history, i.e. they examine how Tolkien developed these languages over time, noticing the subtle and not so subtle changes that he made in word meanings, grammatical structures, and even spelling conventions. This can be a fruitful, though often frustrating, endeavor, as glosses come and go and it is sometimes difficult to determine what might have been a hardcore aspect of the language and what was merely an ephemeral idea.
A prime example is ulban. The Book of Lost Tales records the very earliest examples of the Elvish languages, Qenya and Noldorin, first developed by Tolkien between 1915 and 1920. Here, we are told that ulban means ‘monster’. Jump forward to the late 50s and to his linguistic essay ‘Quendi and Eldar’ (HoME XI) where we learn that ulban is the Valarin term for ‘blue’.
So which is it? Did Tolkien forget that he’d already defined the word decades earlier? Possibly. More likely, he simply decided that ulban was a Quenya word adopted and adapted from Valarin, rather than derived from a Common Eldarin root. This was, after all, his ‘private hobby’ and he could do with it as he pleased. It was only with the publication of the Lord of the Rings that he tried to reconcile his languages to conform to the published works.
Studying the Elvish languages as if we were linguistic anthropologists is, of course, more problematic. There are no Elves to whom we can go and ask our questions. We have only what Tolkien deigned to give us. Yet, one has to ask questions such as ‘Why did he go to the trouble of creating all these color terms?’ and ‘Why do some colors, such as RED or WHITE, have an almost embarrassment of riches in color terms while others do not? Could there be cultural reasons for this, and if so, what might those reasons be?
Here, of course, we enter the realm of pure speculation, which can be fun in its own way. This is where the savvy fan fiction writer is able to enter into Tolkien’s world creatively. What is the cultural significance of a people who can distinguish between various shades of WHITE but cannot ‘see’ ORANGE? Given that the Noldor lived in a chromatic world, is it possible that many of the Sindarin color terms were adopted and adapted from Noldorin Quenya rather than developing independently among the Sindar who lived in a predominately achromatic world prior to the rising of Ithil and Anor? How would each culture influence the other in terms of how they defined color and how they separated colors, one from another?
And then, there is the interesting question of just how wide a range of colors the Elves saw compared to those recognized by the various human cultures with which they interacted. Elvish acuity was sharper and clearer than that of any Mortal. Is it possible that they were able to ‘see’ beyond the visible light spectrum? If so, how might that affect the way in which they saw the world around them? How might we, as writers of fan fiction, utilize this trait in our stories about the Elves?
Foley, William A., Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. (1997)
Kay, P. and Regier, T., ‘Color Naming Universals: the Case of Berinmo’, Cognition, 2007 Feb; 102(2):1289-98. Epub 2006 Feb 7
Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1981)
J.R.R. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales 1, HoME I, Appendix: Names in the Lost Tales 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1984)
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lost Road, HoME V, The Etymologies, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1987)
J.R.R. Tolkien, War of the Jewels, HoME XI, Quendi and Eldar: ‘Note on the Language of the Valar’, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1994)
J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, The Istari, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1980)
Parma Eldalamberon 17, ‘Words, Phrases & Passages in The Lord of the Rings’, The Tolkien Trust (2007)
Vinyar Tengwar 45, ‘Addenda and Corrigenda to the Etymologies — Part One’, November 2003
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