First published in English Teaching Professional Issue 54, January 2008
A few years ago I was on a panel discussion at the JALT national conference in Japan, and the discussion turned to the limits of corpora in selecting vocabulary items for coursebooks. I argued that the concept of a set was so strong in the average student’s mind, that teaching a complete set was more important than merely teaching the most frequent items in a set. Michael McCarthy agreed, and gave two telling examples. The first was that Tuesday was sufficiently less frequent than the other days of the week that frequency alone would dictate teaching it later, which as he said was patently absurd. He went on to point out that the same applied to yellow which was noticeably less frequent than blue, red or green. This started me thinking about teaching colours.
The basic set of colours in most Elementary textbooks is:
blue, green, red, yellow, black and white.
Let’s ignore the pedants who would insist that black and white aren’t colours. In some languages, such as Russian, light blue and dark blue are thought of as distinct colours, rather than different shades of blue, and many books would add light and dark.
The next set, which I would always teach initially, but other people would teach slightly later, is:
brown, grey, orange, pink, purple
Take that into classroom practice, and every teacher finds themself having to add colours to the basic sets, because pens tend to be clear, silver or gold, and clothes are usually of more subtle shades. So there are secondary sets of colours. Colours come in sets restricted to particular uses. In English, the colours of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Neither indigo nor violet are common in conversation. Isaac Newton named the colours of the spectrum, and most people do not perceive indigo as a separate colour, though many perceive cyan between blue and green (light blue if you like) as a distinct colour.
A printer or a computer designer would talk about RGB (red, green, blue the true primary colours) or CMYK (the ‘subtractive’ primary colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, key which means black). An artist would be dealing with vermilion, crimson, scarlet, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, burnt siena and raw umber. For a painter and decorator in Britain the most frequent colour applied to walls is magnolia followed by brilliant white and then the many and various shades of off-white. This is without going into the fanciful colour descriptions used by paint manufacturers. My first flat was painted in vermeer and corot, and very nice it looked.
To a gardener, plain blue is often applied to flowers of a wide variety of shades from mauve and lilac to deep purple. For someone doing theatre lighting, straw is probably the most used colour (it’s said to make actors look younger). With cars, metallic is often added to basic colours : metallic blue, metallic green. Cars strictly come in solid, pearlescent or metallic colours, but both the latter two would be metallic in everyday conversation. The adjective order is interesting: dark metallic blue or dark blue metallic, but not metallic dark blue. There are confusing colours, such as hunting pink, worn by British foxhunters, which is actually bright red, or scarlet. Allegedly it is named after a tailor whose name was Mr Pink.
I felt that corpora would fail to define the restricted colour sets which apply to clothing, so I decided to do some original research in clothes shops, mail order catalogues and on-line mail order websites. I tried to distinguish “catalogue” language from “conversation.” The results were startling.
First pale appears more often than light.
Bright is also important. Bright blue, bright green.
The colours that come up with surprising frequency are:
natural (often with cotton or linen)
navy (always used instead of dark blue, always free-standing in catalogues; navy rather than navy blue)
blue, black, white
ivory (I felt this was catalogue-speak)
denim (sometimes used with blue, but often without, to describe the colour of dresses or sheets or towels)
green (which is nearly always modified by sage, jade, emerald, leaf, olive)
pastel often appears modifying other colours, as well as a group in itself: pastel blue, pastel pink, pastel yellow, pastel green.
All are streets ahead of red, orange and yellow. Purple barely appears. When it does appear, yellow is often replaced by primrose for pale yellow, lemon for bright yellow or gold (= a dark yellow, rather than a metallic colour). The word beige which is a popular choice for vague pale colours in textbooks didn’t appear at all. Green is rarely used without a further word modifying it.
Khaki seems to apply to a wide range of shades, but basically to a stone colour in both American and British catalogues rather than to the unpleasant colour of old British army uniforms, from which it derives. Confusingly, The Gap calls its chinos by the name khakis, so that they sell navy and black khakis. To all the others, khaki is a colour.
Then we get lots of:
cream (preferable to ivory in non-catalogue speak)
indigo (the original dye for denim jeans)
jade (catalogue speak)
olive (free-standing without the addition of green)
rose (free-standing without the addition of pink)
taupe (exclusively American, and catalogue speak. I don’t even know if I’d recognize a garment as taupe.)
plum (maroon doesn’t appear at all & plum is what MicroSoft WORD uses in its pull down menu. I’ve never used plum in my life.)
salmon (free-standing without the addition of pink)
chocolate (preferable to brown)
charcoal (very dark grey)
baby blue, baby pink
The frequency of navy leapt out at me. So much so, that I tested it with various people by showing them a navy pullover and asking what colour it was. It’s known that gender preference shows in frequency lists of adjectives, with lovely being predominantly a female choice of adjective, and with superlatives used more by males than females. I hadn’t realized that this extended to colour. Nearly all the women described the pullover as navy but all the men described it as dark blue. I can only hazard a guess as to why this might be. In the 1950s and 1960s, navy or navy blue was the predominant colour for school uniforms in girls schools, and navy knickers were obligatory. This might have affected the British female vocabulary bank, but it still doesn’t explain the equal American preference for navy in catalogues (I didn’t test the pullover with Americans). However, a little more trawling through communication skills books on gender differences in speech, suggests that in general women use more specific colour words than men, and have a wider active vocabulary for colours. You can put this down to better colour perception or simply more time looking at clothes and their colour descriptions!
After looking at these clothing sets, I went to the pull-down colour menu in WORD again, and it adds these unexpected colours:
violet, teal, aqua, lime, plum, olive green, indigo, lavender, turquoise, blue-grey
I don’t think that such detail would be necessary in most teaching situations, but “Colours Set Two” designed for classroom practice, shopping lessons and so on, should include at least navy, khaki, natural, tan, cream, silver, gold and pale and bright should be taught alongside light. Pastels / Pastel colours is a significant group description.
In my early days of teaching, adult coursebooks were black and white, and the exception was L.G. Alexander’s First Things First which used colour only for the three units teaching colours. Unfortunately the colour reproduction was so poor that different impressions had wildly different versions of pink, orange, brown and red, which caused confusion. Even nowadays with far better colour reproduction, it would be risky basing work on the distinction between pink, rose and salmon, or beige, tan and stone in coursebook illustrations. Silver and gold simply don’t print. As books are printed in different impressions in different countries, colour correction is not up to the subtlety required. However, the real world should give examples, and glossy magazines have better colour reproduction than the average coursebook, so flash cards can be assembled.
The catalogue research was done this year, in an era dominated by somewhat grungy colours. If the world of fashion brightens our lives by moving strongly towards brighter primary colours, you might not have to worry at all.