Hanunóo Color Categories

November 29th, 2008

A diagram by Umberto Eco illustrating Harold Conklin‘s study of the Hanunóo color system (“Hanunóo Color Categories”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 1955, v2, p339-344).

Eco’s depiction of the Hanunóo color system, appearing in Marshall Blonsky’s On Signs, p170.

“Color distinctions in Hanunóo are made at two levels of contrast. The first, higher, more general level consists of an all-inclusive, coordinate, four-way classification which lies at the core of the color system. The four categories are mutually exclusive in contrastive contexts, but may overlap slightly in absolute (i.e., spectrally, or in other measurable) terms.

“The four Level I terms are:

1. mabiru: relative darkness (of shade of color); blackness (black)
2. malagti: relative lightness (or tint of color); whiteness (white)
3. marara: relative presence of red; redness (red)
4. malatuy: relative presence of light greenness; greenness (green)

“The three-dimensional color solid is divided by this Level I categorization into four unequal parts; the largest is mabiru, the smallest malatuy. While boundaries separating these categories cannot be set in absolute terms, the focal points (differing slightly in size, themselves) within the four sections, can be limited more or less to black, white, orange-red, and leaf-green respectively. In general terms, mabiru includes the range usually covered in English by black, violet, indigo, blue, dark green, dark gray, and deep shades of other colors and mixtures; malagti, white and very light tints of other colors and mixtures; marara, maroon, red, orange, yellow, and mixtures in which these qualities are seen to predominate; malatuy, light green, and mixtures of green, yellow, and light brown. All color terms can be reduced to one of these four but none of the four is reducible. This does not mean that other color terms are synonyms, but that they designate color categories of greater specification within four recognized color realms.

“The basis of this Level I classification appears to have certain correlates beyond what is usually considered the range of chromatic differentiation, and which are associated with nonlingustic phenomena in the external environment. First, there is the opposition between light and dark, obvious in the contrasted ranges of meaning of lagti and biru. Second, there is an opposition between dryness or desiccation and wetness or freshness (succulence) in visible components of the natural environment which are reflected in the term rara and latuy respectively. This distinction is of particular significance in terms of plant life. Almost all living plant types possess some fresh, succulent, and often ‘greenish’ parts. To eat any kind of raw, uncooked food, particularly fresh fruits or vegetables, is known as paglatyun (< latuy). A shiny, wet, brown-colored section of newly-cut bamboo is malatuy (not marara). Dried-out or matured plant material such as certain kinds of yellowed bamboo or hardened kernels of mature or parched corn are marara. To become desiccated, to lose all moisture, is known as mamara (< para, ‘desiccation’)… A third opposition, dividing the two already suggested, is that of deep, unfading, indelible, and hence often more desired material as against pale, weak, faded, bleached, or ‘colorless’ substance, a distinction contrasting mabiru and maarara with malagti and malatuy.

“In short, we have seen that the apparent complexity of the Hanunóo color system can be reduced at the most generalized level to four basic terms which are associated with lightness, darkness, wetness, and dryness. This intracultural analysis demonstrates that what appears to be color ‘confusion’ at first may result from an inadequate knowledge of the internal structure of a color system and from a failure to distinguish sharply between sensory reception on the one hand and perceptual categorization on the other” (Conklin, p341-343).

2 Responses to “Hanunóo Color Categories”

  1. PolyMathicus Says:

    U know well that the level of this blog is always high. However, at least to me, sometimes it reaches a truly remarkable level. This is the case here.

    The only comment I want to make is the obvious one: the 4 basic colors astonishlingly parallel the 4 main aristtelian qulities, namely Humidity (wetness) , dryness, warmness (light), coldness (dark). It is as if
    hanoo system stripped away the superficial features of the visible spectrum, leaving only the essential..


    PS IO will not leave u in peace starting from january 15th: the book MUST be written..:)

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I would see more citations of this supposed color quality description.

    I sense that primitive academics misinterpret or read into the newly “discovered” language, in order to expound their own psychoactive drug induced viewpoints.

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