Scholarly article on topic 'A cognitive study of colour terms in Persian and English'

A cognitive study of colour terms in Persian and English Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Mohammad Amouzadeh, Manouchehr Tavangar, Mohammad A. Sorahi

Abstract This study aims at conducting a contrastive study of colour metaphors in Persian and English within the framework of cognitive linguistics. To this end, it adopts primarily the revised model of Kövecses (2005), in which he treats metaphor as a cognitivecultural phenomenon. The results of the study indicate some similarities and differences between the colour metaphors in English and Persian. Similarities are mostly attributed to either a kind of universal motivation for the metaphors to emerge in the two languages or those which penetrating into Persian through translation, whereas differences found related to the colour metaphors in the two languages indicating the culture-specific nature of the colour metaphors.

Academic research paper on topic "A cognitive study of colour terms in Persian and English"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 32 (2012) 238 - 245

4th International Conference of Cognitive Science (ICCS 2011)

A cognitive study of colour terms in Persian and English

Mohammad Amouzadeha, Manouchehr Tavangara, Mohammad A. Sorahia

aDepartment of Linguistics, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran


This study aims at conducting a contrastive study of colour metaphors in Persian and English within the framework of cognitive linguistics. To this end, it adopts primarily the revised model of Kovecses (2005), in which he treats metaphor as a cognitive-cultural phenomenon. The results of the study indicate some similarities and differences between the colour metaphors in English and Persian. Similarities are mostly attributed to either a kind of universal motivation for the metaphors to emerge in the two languages or those which penetrating into Persian through translation, whereas differences found related to the colour metaphors in the two languages indicating the culture-specific nature of the colour metaphors.

©2011 Published by Elsevie r Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of the 4th International Conference of Cognitive Science

Keywords: Colour metaphor; colour terms; cognitive linguistics; Persian; English

1. Introduction

The study of colour terms in linguistics has its own tradition, and Berlin and Kay (1969) work is considered as the pioneering research in this area. By employing some strict criteria, they found that all languages choose their colour terms from a set of eleven colour categories called basic colour terms: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Berlin and Kay's argument is that those colour terms share common characteristics: a) they are monolexemic, so their signification is not included in that of any other colour term; b) their application is not restricted to a narrow class of objects, and c) they are psychologically salient for informants. Furthermore, as Kay, Berlin, and Merrifield (1991) state, these colour terms are typically known to most members of a particular culture. Based on these criteria, only sefid (white), siah (black), sorkh/ghermez (red), sabz (green), and zard (yellow) are considered as basic colour terms in Persian.

Various explanations, though incompatible with one another, have been put forward for configuration of basic colour terms (e.g. Kay, 2005; Hardin, 2005; Lindsey & Brown, 2002; Dedrick, 1998; Roberson, Davis, & Davidoff, 2000; Maculary, 1997). Although a considerable number of publications have dealt with colour terms, very few have paid the due attention to the metaphorical nature of colours, especially from a cross-cultural perspective. By comparing and contrasting colour metaphors and metonymies in Persian and English, the primary objective of this study is investigating the figurative role of colours in these two languages particularly uncovering how colour metaphors are linked to language, thought, and culture. It is a truism that there is evidence from a variety of different

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1877-0428 © 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of the 4th International Conference of Cognitive Science doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.01.035

cognitive domains designating the interactions between culture, language, and thought. Recent developments in cognitive linguistics on metaphors call for serious attention on the inter-cute relationship between culture, language and thought (see, e.g. Basso, 1976; Su, 2004; & Roberson, Davidoff, Davies, & Shapiro, 2006).

The present study is carried out within the framework of cognitive linguistics to compare and contrast colour metaphors and metonymies in contemporary Iranian Persian and American English. The rationale behind this study comes from Grady (2007) who believes that comparative metaphor studies will reveal the similarities and differences of conceptual systems of people living in different societies and cultural environments more clearly. By comparing a number of colour metaphors and metonymies in Persian and English, the current paper will be focused on general and culture-specific conceptual mechanism triggering similar and dissimilar conceptual configuration in the two languages.

2. Kovecses' Cognitive Linguistic Theory of Metaphor

This study adopts primarily the revised model of Kovecses (2005), in which he treats metaphor as a cognitive-cultural phenomenon. Kovecses (2005) argues although the theory of conceptual metaphor that was first developed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) is still an inspiration to most anthropologists and linguists working on metaphor, it should be considered with certain caveats. First, it tends to overemphasize the universality of conceptualization and second, it ignores the culture-specific nature of metaphorical thought. For that, Kovecses attempts to propose a theory of metaphor dealing adequately both with universality and cultural variations of metaphors.

3. Method

Colour metaphors and metonymies related to the five basic colour terms of Persian were chosen for comparison and contrast with their English counterparts. The Persian data was culled from the following dictionaries: farharg-e farsi-e aAiare (The Vulgar Persian Dictionary), Cokhar Dictionary, and loghatraAe (Encyclopedic Dictionary). Some of the data also came from the IRIB Service, short stories, navels, magazines, and newspapers. Other data was culled from the literature on metaphors.

The English data of the study came from the following dictionaries: LongAan Advanced AAerican Dictionary, The AAerican Heritage Dictionary, Webster's Third New International Dictionary and to a lesser extent MerriaA Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Some of the data also came from the Berkeley master metaphor list and METALUDE (Metaphor at Lmgnan University DepartAent of English). The VOA World Service, magazines, and newspapers were other important sources.

In order to validate the data, it was given to two groups of monolingual native speakers of Persian and American English. Each group contained 20 experts in linguistics and language studies with a good knowledge of figurative expressions used in their language. The native speakers of Persian were selected from among the university staff teaching in the departments of linguistics and literature at three Iranian universities. The native speakers of American English were amongst those who had attended an international conference on metaphor and were volunteers to take part in this study. They were asked to rectify the possible errors of the data and also add as many colour metaphors and metonymies as they could to the data. Then their collected answers were analyzed for similarities and differences.

4. Results

sefid/white. In both Persian and English, this colour is used to refer to the race of people with pale skin. Moreover, it has the meaning of looking pale because of illness, fear, or strong emotion as in the following examples: "Are you OK? You are as white as a sheet!" and "Aesle gach sefid shodan" [to become as white as plaster].

With some compounds, this colour is used with similar meanings in both English and Persian. For instance, to show the white flag is semantically identical to parchaA-e sefid neshan dadan, meaning that one accepts that they

have failed or been defeated. White Aeat has the same connotation as gusht-e sefid to refer to the pale-coloured meat of a chicken. Another interesting similarity is related to whitewashing and Aast-Aali kardan [to make white with yogurt]. These two compounds are used when one wants to hide the true facts about something. Probably "Aast" [yogurt] is used because of its whiteness.

There are some English white-compounds which are nonexistent in Persian: a white elephant is a useless and costly thing; a white lie is a small lie that you tell someone, especially in order to avoid hurting their feelings; white Aagic is a kind of magic used for good purposes, and finally, white slavery, an old-fashioned expression, used to refer to the business of taking girls to foreign countries and forcing them to be prostitutes. Similarly, there are some Persian expressions made with sefid which are not found in English. The following table gives a list of these expressions along with the meaning and examples for each expression.

Table 1. Expressions made with sefid


sefid bakht [white luck] Good luck, happiness.

cheshm sefid [white- eyed] An impudent, shameless, and rude person

ru sefid kardan [to make one's face white] To one's credit or honor

ru sefid kardan [to make one's face white] (disapproving) (ironic) Committing such a

grave sin that others' sins seem unimportant.

cheshm-e kasi sefid shodan [the eyes' of one become Staring at a fixed point and waiting for

white] somebody for a long time

sefid ra siah kardan [turn something white into black] To overturn decisions or facts

In Persian, sometimes sefid means without any specific colour or without written materials on a piece of paper: kaqaz-e sefid [white paper] is a piece of paper without anything written on it or chek-e sfid eAza [a white signature check] is a blank check that has been signed without the amount.

siah/black. In both Persian and English, this colour refers to the race of people who originally come from Africa and have dark brown skin. This colour has also the following similar meanings in both Persian and English: very dirty; sad and without much hope for the future; very bad and evil; and very dark because there is no light.

In addition to the above similarities, siah and black are used in the following expressions with almost the same meanings: blackboard and taxte-siah, to have a black eye and zir-e cheshA-e kasi siah shodan, blacklist and list-e siah, black Aarket and bazaar-e siah.

siah and black differ in: 1) the expressions that exist in English but not in Persian, 2) the expressions that exist in Persian but not in English, and 3) the expressions that exist in both languages but are different in meaning or the use of colours. Black huAor, black coAedy, black econoAy, blackguard, black ice, black Aail, and black sheep are examples of the expressions which are nonexistent in Persian. Table 2 depicts examples of Persian expressions with the term siah which are absent in English.

Mohammad Amouzadeh et al. / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 32 (2012) 238 - 245

Table 2. Persian expressions with the term siah

Meaning Example

(money) worthless; made up of worthless metals in khune ye pule siah ham nemiarze!

[This house is not worthy of a black coin]

(offending) to emphasize adverbs of time mikham ke sad sale siah ham nayad!

[I want him not to come one hundred black years!]

(offending) to emphasize a modifier; damn kodum gure siah rafti?

Which black grave did you go to?]

(only for women) unfortunate Siah bakht shode.

[She has become unfortunate]

Inauspicious; foreboding Saghesh siahe.

[His palate (mouth) is black]

having a dark colour, but not a black siah sukhte

[with a black burnt skin]

ru siah shodan: to be put to shame rum siah shod

[my face became black]

siah shodan: to be full of suffering, worry, or bad luck Ruz-o shabemun az dast-e in do tab ache siah shode.

[These two kids have made our days and nights


siah kardan: to deceive; to beguile dari mano siah mikoni?

[Are you making me black?]

siah kardan: causing a feeling of bitterness zendegit ro siah mikonam.

[I will make your life black]

siah mast: dead drunk

az bas mashrub khorde siah mast shode

[Because of his indulgence in drinking wine, he got

black drunk]

Some expressions made by siah and black seem to be verbally and literally similar but have different metaphorical meanings. In English, black and white means considering things in a very simple way as in: "A lot of people see things in black and white and don't understand how complex the issue is, but in Persian, siah va sefid [black and white] means everything that exists, as in dast be siah-o sefid nemizane [She/he does not touch black and white] meaning she/he does not do anything. In English, in black and white means in written form, and therefore definite: "The rules are there in black and white for everyone to see. In Persian, siah in siah kardan [making black] as in ye chizaee siah kardam [we made something black] means writing something haphazardly and unclearly.

And finally, there are some expressions made up of black and siah with almost similar metaphorical meanings but different codes. For example, if there is a black mark against you, someone has a bad opinion of you because of something you have done. The same meaning is conveyed in Persian with a different colour, alamat-e ghermez [red mark]. In the same way, feelings of anger and hate are shown by giving a black look in English, while in Persian cheshm-ghore [white part of the eyes] is used to show one's anger.

sabz/green. In some conditions sabz and green are used with similar figurative meanings. This colour is connected to other concepts such as grass, trees, or bushes as in green fields in English and dasht-haye sabz in Persian. With some fruits, it means not ready to be eaten or very young such as in green bananas and mive-ha hanuz sabz hastand [These fruits are still green]. It can also be used to refer to a piece of paper money, e.g. greenback or the green staff in English and ye posht sabz behesh neshun dadam [I showed him a greenback] meaning I tried to bribe him with some money. When used with the term light, this colour makes a compound meaning either a traffic light, green light in English and cheragh sabz in Persian. It can also indicate that one can begin a piece of work, plan, etc as in the following examples: The board just gave us the green light to begin research, or behesh chragh sabz neshun dadan [they showed/gave him the green light].

As indicated in table 3, there are some green-expressions in English with no counterparts in Persian.

Table 3. English green-expressions with no counterparts in Persian


(informal) young and lacking experience; naive He is still pretty green.

(informal) looking pale and unhealthy because you are Ge/rge turned greener with eech r/ck /f the b/et.

to want very much something that someone else has She wes green with envy.

to be a good gardener My m/ther has e green thumb.

Greenhorn: (informal) someone who lacks experience and My y/unger br/ther is e greenh/rn!

can be easily deceived.

(humorous) jealousy Try t/ killy/ur green-eyed m/nster.

There are also some metaphorical meanings in Persian with the term "sebz" which are not seen in English. sebz buden (to be green): to be healthy, happy, and/or fortunate; sebz sh/den (to become green): (plants) to grow; sebz sh/den (to become green): to appear, to suddenly be seen; sebz sh/den (to become green): (hair/mustache) to grow.

red/sorkh/ghermez. In these languages, hair that is red is an orange brown colour, and skin that is red has a bright pink colour. This colour is used figuratively in English to show a state of embarrassment, bashfulness, or sickness as in t/ be es red es e beet. Similarly, in Persian s/rkh sh/den is used in the same situation and context as in veghti nemzedesh r/ did suretesh (mesle lebu) s/rkh sh/d [When she saw her fiancé her face became red (like a sugar beet)]. In English, red elert is similar in meaning to ezhir-e ghermez [red alarm] in Persian. Both are used as a warning that there is very great danger. In both languages, red is used as a symbol of anger and is represented in some expressions such as t/ see red in English and ghermez/s/rkh sh/den [to become red] in Persian.

In Persian, s/rkh kerden [to make red] and s/rkh sh/den [to become red] are used for cooking something like meat as in berem mehi-he r/ s/rkh k/nem [I am going to make the fish red] in which s/rkh kerden is similar in meaning to br/wn in American English as in Br/wn the meet in e frying pen. Actually, s/rkh kerden is a kind of browning certain edible things in hot oil and in a frying pan. Also, in Persian in order to provoke a feeling of holiness and sanctity, s/rkh is used with the meaning of bloody in some social and cultural circumstances such as Iran - Iraq's war as in jeng-e s/rkh [red war]

In combination with sefid (white), s/rkh is used with two different meanings which are nonexistent in English. s/rkh-/-sefid [red and white] is sometimes used as an indication of being healthy, fresh, and bright as in hesebi s/rkh-/-sefid sh/di [You have become red and white]. Sometimes, s/rkh-/-sefid sh/den [to become red and white] is used to show a change in the face colour due to embarrassment or sadness: hengem-e s/hbet ez ker-he-ye zesht-e g/zeshtesh s/rkh-/-sefid mish/d [He was turning to red and white while talking about his evil actions in the past]. S/rkh negeh deshten [to keep red], is sometimes used with the metaphorical meaning of being poor, but pretending that they are not as in be sili suretesh re s/rkh negeh midere [he keeps his face red with a slap across his face].

zard/yellow. In both English and Persian, this colour is disapprovingly used to show fear and cowardice. In American English, a yell/w-bellied person is not a brave person and in Persian, zerd kerden [to make yellow] means to be terribly afraid of somebody or something as in hememun zerd kerde budim [All of us had made yellow]. shelver-e kh/d re zerd kerden [to make one's trousers yellow] is another expression in Persian which is used in an insulting and offensive way meaning to be highly afraid of somebody or something. Yell/w j/urnelism and metbuet-e zerd both mean newspaper articles in which shocking or exciting events are written about in an extreme and exaggerated way.

In English, yell/w peges refers to the name of a book that contains the telephone numbers of businesses and organizations in an area, and is nonexistent in Persian and defterche-ye rehneme-ye telef/n [telephone information notebook] is used instead.

In Persian, zerd sh/den [to become yellow] is used metaphorically for plants of every type meaning to wither, or to fade. zerd kerden [to make yellow] is another expression in which zerd is used metaphorically and is a very impolite way of saying to defecate and usually addresses children.

5. Discussion

The results of the study showed that the following conceptual metaphors are common to English and Persian:











According to Kovecses (2005), when an abstract entity is metaphorically conceptualized in similar ways by different languages and cultures, three possibilities should be considered: "(1) It has happened by accident; (2) one language borrowed the metaphors from another; and (3) there is some universal motivation for the metaphors to emerge in these cultures" (p. 38). As much of the scientific inquiry undertaken by researchers shows, Persian has borrowed the following metaphorical expressions: parcham-e sefid neshan dadan [to show the white flag], azhir-e ghermez [red alarm], gusht-e sefid [white meat], taxte siah [blackboard], list-e siah [black list], bazaar-e siah [black market], posht sabz [greenback], matbuat-e zard [yellow journalism] and their related conceptual metaphors from English (or other European languages). Filling the gaps in conceptual metaphors seems to be the only motivation in borrowing these metaphors from English .

It seems that other similar conceptual metaphors arise from some universal motivation. According to Kovecses (2005), this universal motivation can be well explained by the "neuroscientific version of the notion of the embodiment of metaphor" according to which "the source domains typically arise from more concrete and physical sensorimotor experience, whereas target domains are less physical in nature" (p. 24). According to this view, conceptual metaphors are a set of neurons in the brain which are connected together by neural circuitry. The set of neurons are the source and the target domains, and the circuitry is the mappings.

In each of the above-mentioned conceptual metaphors, the source domain is a colour term which has been arisen from the concrete and physical domain of colours tangibly experienced by the speakers of English and Persian. Then, they make correspondences between these colours and the less concrete and abstract target domains to produce an abstract thought. This abstract thought, as Kovecses (2005, p. 26) assumes, "is based on correlations in bodily experience that result in well-established neuronal connections in the brain". These correspondences, or mappings, make up the conceptual metaphors. It is very interesting to see that the conceptual metaphors that Persian shares with English are mostly emotion metaphors such as FEAR IS WHITE, FEAR IS YELLOW, SADNESS IS BLACK,, BASHFULNESS IS RED, or ANGER IS RED. This similarity has its root in the similarity in the physiology of human beings and the similar experiences that they have had regarding these emotions. As an example, when one gets angry, his heart works harder to pump blood into vessels more rapidly, his blood pressure goes up, and as a result of this physiological process, a greater amount of blood is pumped around the body, especially into the face. The result is quite predictable: one's face turns into red. Because of this reason then, the redness of the face is associated with anger, and this kind of bodily experience makes up the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS RED and can be observed in such sentences as "He immediately saw red." in English, and az asabaniat sorkh shod [from anger he had become red] in Persian. It seems that the same physiological processes also take place when one gets embarrassed or ashamed. If this justification comes true, then the model proposed for ANGER by some cognitive linguists (e.g. Kovecses, 2000, 2003; Lakoff & Kovecses, 1987) needs to be modified so that it may have room for the existence and justification of ANGER IS RED, a metaphor which has been largely neglected and needs to be studied.

The results of the present study also showed some differences between the colour metaphors used in the two languages. Below is a list of some of these conceptual metaphors which are only used in American English and are nonexistent in Persian:


We noticed it was only c white He.


She is still green.


He turned greener with each rock of the boat.


Sara was green with envy.

In the same way, there are some conceptual metaphors in Persian which are nonexistent in English. Below is a list of some of these metaphors:


d/khtcresh sefid-bckht/sich-bckht sh/d [her daughter became white-luck/black-luck].


pescre-ye cheshm sefid [the white eye boy].


/midvcrcm hcmishe scbz bcshi! [Literally: I wish you to be always green]. 6. Conclusion

The analysis of the data showed that Persian and English had 117 cases of metaphorical expressions related to the colour terms altogether. Of these 117 cases, there were only 23 cases of identical or similar metaphorical expressions. The identical metaphors were mostly related to emotion concepts such as FEAR, SADNESS, BASHFULNESS, or ANGER. This similarity has its root in the similarity in the physiology of human beings and the similar experiences that they have had regarding these emotions. Out of those 23 cases, 18 metaphorical expressions were identical, but 5 cases were very similar only at the generic level. However, at the specific level, important differences were observed in these seemingly similar metaphors. For example, Persian and English share the conceptual metaphors ILLNESS IS WHITE, and FEAR IS WHITE only at a generic level. However, at the specific level, this whiteness is perceived as plaster in Persian while it is conceptualized as a piece of sheet in English. This is in line with Kovecses (2005) who believes that metaphors constitute generic schemata filled out by cultures that have those metaphors. According to him, generic schemata receive unique cultural content at a specific level when filled out.

Out of the total number of 117 colour metaphors in Persian and English, 94 cases of differences were also detected. The great number of differences between colour metaphors of these two languages illustrated the fact that colour metaphors mostly carry strong cultural components. The results showed that in spite of some similarities, the different connotations of various colour metaphors across Persian and English revealed the culture-bound nature of these metaphors. The cross-cultural variations among Persian and English colour metaphors have happened due to some important reasons:

a. Kovecses (2005) puts the causes of variation in metaphor into two classes: different experiences and different cognitive processes which work together and can not be separated from each other. It seems that most Persian and English colour metaphors vary because the experiences of Iranians and Americans vary.

b. Social context, including power relations, such as the use of different metaphors for men and women, sometimes have influence on the metaphors used in a language. LUCK HAS COLOUR is a good example in this connection. In Iranian culture LUCK has COLOUR: it is either WHITE or BLACK. This conceptual metaphor is usually used for women as an indication of a successful or unsuccessful marriage. However, this conceptual metaphor and its linguistic expressions are very rarely used for men. This example may well show the patriarchal

society of Iran in the past, but things are changing rapidly now. Iranians perceive "LUCK" as a room which has a door dar-haye khoshbakhti be rush baste shode [The doors of luck are closed to him] and is painted either WHITE or BLACK.

c. Physical environments such as geography, landscape, and dwellings may have enormous impact on the choice of metaphors. A certain colour term such as GREEN can be used with different target domains as a source domain to produce different conceptual metaphors: YOUTH IS GREEN, ILLNESS IS GREEN, ENVY IS GREEN in English and HEALTH IS GREEN in Persian. The interesting thing about these metaphors is that in these two languages, the same source domain, GREEN, is used with almost two opposite meanings: while green stands for health and happiness in Persian, as one of its metaphorical meanings, it means to look ill in English. This is another piece of evidence for the existence of cultural variation among conceptual metaphors and their linguistic manifestations. It seems that in this specific case, the physical environment is very likely to be the main reason for the existence of this metaphor in Persian, because Iran is located in a dry area, the existence of trees and plants means life, happiness, and health and it has given rise to this metaphor and its linguistic representations. In turn, it can clearly show the relationship between thought, language, and culture .

d. Different languages can convey the same idea using different metaphors. The data show that the opposite can also be true, i.e. as Deignan (2008, p. 289) states, "sometimes different languages use different metaphors to talk about the same topic: the salience of source domains and differences in attitudes toward the source or target domain". For example, regarding the colour metaphors, while in Persian ANGER is only associated with RED, in English ANGER is conveyed using different conceptual metaphors: ANGER IS RED, and ANGER IS PURPLE.


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