Colour terms and some of the most famous

Colour idioms are common in colloquial language, mostly in movies and everyday utterances but there may be difficulties in translation. In this paper I will analyze colour idioms and focus on a particular type of idioms – those containing colour terms and will make a contrastive analysis of these idioms in L1 which is English and L2, that is, French. Not many linguists studied idioms in the past, but today important lexical studies on idioms have been made. However, linguists cannot agree on one definition of an idiom so I will mention a few of them:


·         “sequence of words whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the words themselves” (Palmer 1976)

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·         A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light (Oxford Online English Dictionary)

·         “idioms are typically used to imply a certain evaluation or affective stance towards the things they denote” (Nunberg, Sag, Wasow 1994).


In this paper I will make a contrastive analysis of idioms (fr. expressions idomatiques) in English and French, elaborate their meaning and compare their possible equivalents.   The category of idioms will be the one of colour (fr. couleur) and the colours I will focus the colours black, white, red, green and blue.


Researches on colour terms

Berlin and Kay (1969)

There have been conducted many researches which helped to establish basic colour terms and some of the most famous ones were by Berlin and Kay (1969) who studied colour terms in 78 languages and came to a conclusion that all languages share a universal system of basic colour categories. They presented typological patterns indicating that all languages share a universal system of basic colour terms. These basic colour terms are the most commonly used colour words, and English along with many other languages has 11 basic


CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS OF IDIOMS                                                                              3                                                                  

colour terms: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, gray, brown, black, and white. They have established that most known languages have between 2 and 11 basic colour terms, with the exception of Hungarian and Russian which have 12. They have also made remarks on prototypes which are the most representable members of a category. According to them, colour terms are basic only if the following criteria had been fulfilled: ¨Basic colour terms should 1) be monolexemic, i.e. not predictable from their components; 2) be monomorphemic; 3) not be restricted to a narrow class of objects, i.e. blonde is restricted to hair, wood and beer; 4) be psychologically salient for informants; 5) not include its signification in any other colour term, i.e. crimson is a type of red.? (1969).


Eleanor Rosch

Eleanor Rosch, who is a psychologist, conducted studies on prototype colours and categorisation. In 1974 Rosch defined focal colours as “those areas of the color space previously found to be the most exemplary of basic color names in many different languages.” She has also conducted a research on the language Dani whose speakers have only two focal colours and has also performed an experiment where she proved that we can learn focal colours such as blue, green, red and yellow, which are the domain of ?natural categories? faster than non-focal colours  from the ?distorted categories? such as gray, pink, purple or brown: ?Tested the hypotheses that the domains of color and form are structured into nonarbitrary, semantic categories which develop around perceptually salient “natural prototypes.” Categories which reflected such an organization (where the presumed natural prototypes were central tendencies of the categories) and categories which violated the organization (natural prototypes peripheral) were taught to a total of 162 members of a Stone Age culture which did not initially have hue or geometric-form concepts. In both domains, the presumed “natural” categories were consistently easier to learn than the “distorted” categories. Even when not central, natural prototype stimuli tended to be more rapidly learned and more often chosen as the most typical example of the category than were other stimuli. Implications for general differences between natural categories and the artificial categories of concept formation research are discussed.? Rosch (1973)




CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS OF IDIOMS                                                                           4

Method of idiom analysis

A comparative analysis of idioms is based on the comparison of a source and target language with the aim of finding parallels and equivalents. Idioms in L1 and L2 are compared and either have equivalents or non-equivalents because a specific idiom may not exist in the target language. Pavel Kvetko (2009) proposes degrees of equivalence of idioms:

a)      ?absolute equivalents – idioms literally corresponding in several languages and come from the same source?

b)      relative equivalents – idioms which have identical or very close meaning but different lexical items

c)      non- idiomatic equivalents – collocation or description¨

Non-idiomatic equivalents are idioms without an equivalent in the target language so they are substituted by a collocation or simply described. 

Idioms in this paper will be analysed according to Kvetko´s degrees of equivalence. 


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