v43: skär

I just read an article (Taft C, Sivik L. Salient color terms in four languages. ScandJPsych 1997; 38: 29-34), which looked at lists of colour names elicited from subjects in four languages, including Swedish.

Their findings were compared to Berlin and Kay’s description of 11 basic colour terms (white, black, gray, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, brown, purple, pink).

An interesting result (according to Taft and Sivik) was that there are two words for pink in Swedish: rosa (mentioned by 100% of subjects) and skär (mentioned by 80%), and also for purple: lila and violett (both 100%). I hadn’t heard of skär (in the colour sense), so I checked with colleagues, who said skär is not really a common word for pink, and is used when talking about unpleasant shades of pink. So Swedish has the word grisskär (pig-pink). Sorry, pigs!

I also learnt that lila is the most common word for purple, but there are further alternatives, including purpur and gredelin (from the French gris de lin, ‘flax gray’) . So I looked up the terms for purple on Google. Google Sweden gives the following simple search options: webben (the web) ; sidor på svenska (pages in Swedish); sidor från Sverige (pages from Sweden). I searched for five words meaning purple (or shades thereof) in Swedish, and found the following numbers of hits:

webben på svenska från Sverige
lila 16,400,000 877,000 796,000
purpur 590,000 28,500 21,600
violett 2,160,000 54,000 47,100
gredelin 79,900 66,400 461,000
indigo 28,600,000 130,000 146,000

What do you notice? What seems bizarre is that gredelin has more hits from Sweden than it does from the web in total. Huh?? Secondly, I guess we can agree that lila is the commonest term here for purple, but gredelin is definitely a good second choice. Plus, it sounds much more sophisticated, don’t you think?

(This kind of search won’t work for rosa/skär, because skär has a number of other meanings, including skerry and cut.)

Taft and Sivik also found that one Berlin and Kay non-basic colour term, beige, was mentioned by 100% of subjects, putting it ahead of both skär and grå (gray).

Back to this week’s word, I’d always believed that a French charcuterie was a pork butcher, but it’s actually a specialist in cooked meats (from chair, ‘flesh’ + cuit, ‘cooked’). Swedish has essentially the same word charkuteri (abbreviated as chark, see last week’s photo). And guess what? From the French chair is derived the Swedish skär, that is, the colour of flesh! Pig flesh, obviously.

Next week:


What day is it today?

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 11:39  Comments (2)  
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v38: blå

Coming back through Arlanda airport recently, I noticed an advertisement with the word blåsig, which my colleague said meant windy, as in blåsa (to blow), and wasn’t related to the word blå (blue). But the sky is blue, and the wind blows out of the sky, so do you think those words really could be related?

In fact, etymological dictionaries say that blå and blue are certainly related, deriving from a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base, *bhle-was (or maybe *bhleuos) “light-colored, blue, blond, yellow”. It seems that PIE speakers weren’t too fussy about their colour words; the Latin flavus “yellow” is also derived from the same root. [The * means there is no written example of the PIE word, it was “reconstructed” from known languages.]

Similarly, blåsa and blow are related, deriving from PIE *bhle- (or *bhel-) “to swell, blow up”.

All of which doesn’t really help in answering what I thought was a fairly simple question. In fact I had to go all the way back to PIE, which is supposed to have been spoken around 6000 years ago (and not written down), to not get a good answer. I could stick with my original theory, but I guess that’s not a very scientific way to study etymology. However, I did find out a lot about Swedish colour terms, and the history of the Swedish language, for future posts.

Next week:


There are a lot of bicycles in Sweden, but they hardly ever get ridden. Why not?

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 08:05  Comments (1)  
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