Language of Perception in Northwestern Bantu
Nadine Grimm, Humboldt University Berlin
Do hunter-gatherers express sensory perception differently than, for instance, farming societies? In this paper, I investigate color words and color perception in the “Pygmy” hunter-gatherer (PHG) language Gyeli of Cameroon and compare them with two neighboring farming languages, Mabi and Bulu. I show that PHG and farming communities differ substantially in several ways: (i) the inventory of color categories, (ii) the distribution of color space, (iii) individual variability in color naming, and (iv) the way new colors enter the languages via borrowing.
Gyeli and the farmers’ languages are closely related and in intense contact with one another. Nevertheless, data that I collected in the field reveal that the two farming communities dispose of more color categories than the PHGs. PHGs retain a more conservative color system where traditional color categories (black, red, and white) receive a larger extension in the color space while in the farming communities newly innovated color categories (yellow and green) get a larger extension. Also, PHGs display comparatively a higher individual variability in the way they talk about colors. Both the use of color words and the extension of a color category are less conventionalized among individuals.
Beyond these diagnostics, PHG and farming communities display distinct patterns of borrowing new colors. While PHGs borrow the use of a color word from neighboring farmers’ languages first before they extend the category, the two farming communities first borrow a color concept from the colonial language French and then search for a vernacular word for the new color.