Workshop: Colour Terms

Evolution or Diffusion?

Since the postulation of the international blue blindness of antiquity by the later English Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1859, the debate about color concepts and color perception in antiquity has not ceased.

The theses of Sapir and Whorf as well as the neo-Humboldtians in the German-speaking world (such as Walther Porzig) were also taken up in ancient studies and led to publications in which the color terminology of Sumerian and Akkadian was examined with immense philological care, but despite the clear existence of a word for blue, it was denied that blue was perceived as such in Mesopotamia.

Since Berlin & Kay’s publication of their book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution in 1969, the prevailing opinion in research has been that color terminology developed according to a quasi-evolutionary pattern. More recent research has devoted itself more to the materiality of colors and emphasizes that most abstract colour terms – the emergence of which, moreover, is considered late – were derived from exotic or particularly colorful materials, which then became widespread. It therefore seems appropriate to pose the question of evolution or diffusion on the basis of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Aztec evidence.

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