‘Colour terms’ should be familiar to the masses

News‘Colour terms’ should be familiar to the masses

Last time I was in India, there was a lot of buzz and excitement about this new Noida Metro line that was to be inaugurated. It was to provide the much needed connectivity to Noida commuters to Delhi Metro. However, this author was shocked to find out that it was being named “Aqua Line”.

Naming the routes of a mass transit system in a language that is foreign did not sit well with many citizens. Many took to social media to express their disappointment and disapproval.

The fact that this kind of naming was being done more than half a century after independence makes it even worse. Additionally, the choice of the colour “aqua” is also problematic as it is not a very commonly known/used colour in India.

Language and its relationship with thought, culture, and world-view has always intrigued scholars across cultures and time. Language is a conduit between us humans and the world we perceive around us. The Vedic scholars, grammarians, and philosophers believed that a universe of objective reality exists solely because human beings can express that reality through language.  According to the Shatpatha Brahmana, the supreme consciousness Brahmana enters into this world with rupa (form) and nama (name) and the world extends as rupa and nama extend. Many Vedic rituals and sacrifices (language and action) were meant to create those realities.

Describing the power of words, author Maria Popova writes: “As the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer observed in her poetic meditation on moss, “finding the words is another step in learning to see”. Losing the words, then, is ceasing to see – a peculiar and pervasive form of blindness that dulls the shimmer of the world, a disability particularly dangerous to young imagination just learning to apprehend the world through language.”

All languages are equally equipped to represent all colours of nature. However, the mechanism to represent them may vary across cultures. To quote MB McNeill (Journal of Linguistics, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1972), “The continuous gradation of colour which exists in nature is represented in language by a series of discrete categories.  Although there is no such thing as natural division of spectrum, every language has colour words by which speakers categorize and structure colour continuum.”

Colour terms are deeply rooted in culture and in many instances they could be names of available natural resources. Colour terms in a culture represent their functional importance and its frequency of usage. From the point of view of another language, each language may employ ‘arbitrary’ mechanism in classifying colours.

Existence and absence of a colour term in a language or culture does not represent its ability or inability to perceive that colour. Most agree that colour discrimination is probably the same for all humans with healthy vision.

Languages also adapt to the changes in the environment around them and respond to such changes by creating new modes and terminology to describe them. Languages also use their existing resources to unpack the meaning expressed.

Indian languages, like others, are also appropriately endowed in representing colours of its environment. There are approximately 30 words in the Rigveda (RV) itself denoting colours. RV retains an archaic type of opposition of colours that is very characteristic of the societies of its time. Some of the colour classifications in Sanskrit texts were based on such features as brightness vs. dullness, intense vs. pallor, etc.

One of the main reasons to name mass transit lines, such as the Delhi/Noida Metro, after colours is its simplicity in use. It isn’t the “cuteness” or “elite-ness” of the names.  So why use words and colour terms that are unfamiliar and alien to culture and the masses? These names should be used with the convenience of the native population in mind who use it on a day-to-day basis, not foreign tourists. After all, a democratically elected government in a functioning democracy must prioritise its work for its own citizens.

(Avatans Kumar is a US-based columnist, linguist, activist and alumni of JNU and University of Illionois)

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