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How many colors are there in the spectrum above? How many did I name?





blue violet

The simple named colors are mostly monosyllabic English words red, green,
brown, black, white, gray. Brevity indicates an Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
origin. Monosyllabic words are generally the oldest words in the English
language head, eye, nose, foot, cat, dog, cow, eat, drink, man, wife, house,
sleep, rain, snow, sword, sheath, God. These words go back more than fifteen
centuries. Yellow, purple, and blue are exceptions to the one-syllable-equalsEnglish rule. Yellow and purple are Old English color words with two syllables.
Blue is a one syllable French word (bleu) that replaced a two syllable Old
English word (hwen) eight hundred years ago.
Some of the names for colors are loan words from French (many of which are
loan words from other languages). Since the (zh) sound doesn't exist in Old
English, orange and beige are obviously French. (Garage is also a very French
word.) The words violet and orange were the names of plants (nouns) before
they were the names of colors (adjectives). Violet came from 14th Century
French, which came from Latin. Orange came from 16th Century French, which
came from Italian, which came from Arabic, which came from Persian, which
came from Sanskrit.
English arose when three Germanic tribes the Angles, The Saxons, and the
Jutes migrated from continental Europe to the British Isles in the Fifth
Century. The language they spoke is called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. You
would hardly recognize this language if you heard it spoken or saw it written
today. Danes probably have the best chance of understanding spoken Old
English, Icelanders the best chance of understanding written Old English. Of
the six named colors in my spectrum, only four were known to the AngloSaxons: red, geolu, grne, hwen. Do you recognize any of them?

geolu grne hwen

In the year 1066, an invasion of French speaking peoples the Normans, the
Bretons, and the French swept over the British Isles. The last Anglo-Saxon
King of England, King Harold II, was succeeded by the first Norman king,
William the Conqueror. The Normans had an odd empire (if that's the word for
it) that included the British Isles, northern France (appropriately named
Normandy), southern Italy, Sicily, Syria, Cyprus, and Libya. William was a
Norman, descended from Norsemen, but he spoke French not Swedish or
Norwegian or Danish. One factor leading to the rise of the Normans in their
scattered empire is their ability to quickly integrate themselves into the culture
of the peoples they conquered. For purposes of this discussion, we care about
language. When the Normans got to northern France, they started speaking
French. When the Normans got to England they got the Anglo-Saxons to start
speaking French too (sort of). In about a hundred years, Anglo-Saxon had
mutated into something closer to what we would recognize as English today
neither French nor Anglo-Saxon. Old English became Middle English. This is
when English acquired the words blue (which replaced hwen) and violet (which
never existed as an English color word before).






The next change in the English language was one of pronunciation the Great
Vowel Shift (13501700). This is when silent e and other spelling rules that frustrate both native and
second language speakers arose. The notion of long and short vowels also changed. At one time a long
vowel was one that was pronounced for a longer time than a short vowel. Take the words pan and pane.
Before the Great Vowel Shift, pan was pronounced "pan" and pane was pronounced "paaaneh" with a
literal looong vowel and a non-silent "eh" at the end. Being mostly a change in pronunciation, the rise of
Modern English around 1550 doesn't affect our discussion of color words. Movable type printing invented in
Germany around 1445 is probably more important. Books became relatively plentiful, spelling became
standardized, and tracking down the first occurrence of a word became easier. The Modern English period is
when the words orange and indigo were first used to identify colors.

red orange yellow green blue indigo violet