Friday, July 4, 2014


The question may seem foolish to you.

But, did you know that not all languages "see" colors the same way others do?

For example, the Vietnamese see what we call "blue" and "green" as two shades of the same color.  A "grue" as some say.  Their word for both colors is xanh.  In order to distinguish the two shades of xanh, they will say "leaf xanh" for what we call "green" and "ocean xanh" for what we call "blue."

Other languages do not differentiate between green and yellow, as in Telugu, a major language in India. Their word "patstsa" can refer to both green or yellow!  To be more clear, they have to add additional words like, "leaf patstsa" for "green," and "turmeric patstsa" as opposed to "bright patstsa" for "mustard" and "gold."

So....what colors did our ancestors SEE?  Because one has to see a color first, before one names it.


Berlin and Kay, the former an anthropologist and the latter a linguist, came up with a theory (contested by some) that says that almost all languages start out having two basic colors in their vocabulary : black and white.

If the language has a third color, it will always be red.

If the language has a fourth color, it will be a color that can be either green or yellow.

Onward we go to a fifth color and so on till we get to pink, orange, purple and gray.

Now this is interesting because indeed we have indigenous names for those primary three colors black, white and red.


Interestingly, when our ancestors drew images on the walls of caves, they used only these three colors above : black, white and red. That's because of three materials they used to make those drawings : powdered lime rock (white), charcoal (black) or clay (red). Other sources for the "ink" may have been used, but the colors rendered were always black, white or red.

Turtle Images in Black in Chugai Cave, Luta

But for all the other colors we use loan words from Spanish.

BETDE (Spanish verde)
AMARIYO (Spanish amarillo)
ASUT (Spanish azul)
(KOLOT DE) CHOKOLÅTE (Spanish chocolate)
(KOLOT DE) LILA (Spanish lila)

Before we go on, I have to point out that, although we use Spanish terms for brown and purple, we don't use the exact words for brown and purple which are used by Spaniards.

In Spain, something brown is marrón or pardo; sometimes, also, castaño and even café (the color of coffee). Something purple is morado or púrpura.

But our people say kolot de chokolåte, or sometimes just chokolåte, when they want to say "brown." "Purple" is kolot de lila, or just plain lila, the color of lilacs.


So we come back to the question : why are there only three indigenous words for colors in Chamorro?

We can look at the following possibilities :

1. Our ancestors only saw three colors : black, white and red.  This fits in nicely with the Berlin/Kay theory that almost all languages start out with terms for those three colors.

2. Our ancestors had words for other colors, but dropped them in favor of the Spanish words, especially for green, blue and yellow.  But why do that?  Why drop the words for blue and green, which would be so common, considering the green of the earth and the blue of the sea and sky?

Well, consider the possibility that our ancestors, like other cultures, did not see the distinction between green and blue; that they might have had a word for "grue."

Since there is no corresponding Spanish term for "grue," Chamorros may have been exposed to the idea that green and blue are different colors.  They may have been forced by circumstance, having to deal with non-Chamorros moving to the Marianas, to pick up the Spanish words for green and blue, and abandon the concept and word for "grue."

The same could apply to yellow and green, seen as two shades of one color in some cultures.

3. As for yellow, it's also possible that our ancestors used the word mangu for yellow; the color of the local ginger. Pale' Roman's dictionary say mangu can mean the color yellow, and not just the ginger itself.


Ask a Chamorro today, and they'd say kolot.

That's our pronunciation of the Spanish word color.

But thanks to Pale' Roman, we are told there was an indigenous word for color : hilet.

Now THAT may explain a lot more; the fact that there was an indigenous word for color.

Because then our ancestors may not have necessarily come up with a word for blue, or green or yellow.

They just had to say hilet långet (the color of the sky) for blue, or maybe it was hilet tåsi (the color of the ocean).  And maybe hilet hågon (the color of the leaf) for green.  Just as they could have said hilet mangu (the color of ginger) for yellow.

Or maybe not.


Now why should we have lost our own word for "color" : hilet?  As well as, possibly, our own words for green, blue and so on?

We'll never know for sure.  People just didn't think it important to write down explanations for these things while they were happening hundreds of years ago.  Things just happened, and people didn't write journals about them.

But the main idea I'd like to propose here is this : not only is it possible that we lost indigenous words for some colors; it's also possible our ancestors did not see the same, distinct colors that you and I have been trained to distinguish through our English-language education.  There may have been, in fact, a Chamorro color for "grue" or "grellow."

The colors you and I see, may not have been the exact same colors they saw.


There is a Chamorro word ugis, and it is thought to be the color gray.  But, not really.

Older speakers have explained the meaning of the word to me along these lines :

It is a lightening of a darker color.

An example :

~ Kao maolek este na magagu-ho?
~ (Is this clothing OK on me?)

~ Hunggan, sa' inigis hao ni ennao.
~ (Yes, because it makes your complexion lighter.)

Or :

~ Ei na inapmam hao America!  Esta hao ugis!
~ Wow you were in the States a long time!  Your color is already lighter!

So it seems that ugis does not stand on its own as a distinct color.  One wouldn't say they wanted the painter to paint a wall ugis.

But, if the wall were painted a dark color, someone could say to make it ugis, to make the color a lighter shade.

This reminds me of the Chamorro word boksion, which means "pale, colorless, palid."  It isn't a color, but rather a lack of it!

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