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Color Terminology in Pliny’s NH 37

Emi C. Brown

Why, in his discussion of gemstones in Book 37 of the Natural History, does Pliny the Elder utilize the term candidus over three times as often as the term albus? Why does he describe red stones as ruber only once, but as sanguineus twelve times? In this paper I situate the peculiarities of Pliny’s use of color terms in Book 37 within the framework of anthropological scholarship on color terminology, and I will present and interpret the peculiarities of Pliny’s language.

While the semantic ranges of color terms have always been of interest to linguists and classical scholars (André (1949) is particularly valuable), in recent years there has been an increasing interest in the use of Latin and Greek color terminology as it is specific to certain authors or genres (cf. Cleland 2004). However, excepting the work done by Mark Bradley (2009), who has written on the intersection between the philosophy of color and genre in the Naturalis Historia, there has been little scholarship presented on the use of color terminology in Pliny the Elder’s work, despite the fact that color is the basic feature Pliny uses to organize and identify gems. Indeed, Pliny himself divides a significant portion of Book 37 by color categories: §92-138 are divided according to the colors of the stones.

The most influential work of the 20th century in the scholarship of anthropological linguistics of color has been Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s Basic Color Terms (1969). Following in their footsteps, Sir John Lyons (1999) presented a hypothesis regarding what colors can be considered the basic color terms of Latin. In accordance with this study, my methodology for this project involved compiling all the color adjectives Pliny employed in reference to a gemstone, arranging these according to color category, and comparing the frequency of the most commonly used adjectives to the basic color terms of Latin, as well as analyzing the specific semantic and symbolic implications of the terms as Pliny uses them. The results show that the color terms Pliny chooses—both when in accordance and when in opposition to the basic terms hypothesized by Lyons­—demonstrate a tendency on Pliny’s part to heavily favor terms that are 1) specific 2) vivid and 3) evocative of not only hue, but also luster. Pliny’s word choice, even when he does use adjectives that denote dullness or a broad range of shades, characterizes his style as purposeful and precise—the appropriate lexical personality for an encyclopedia in which a vast number of similar gems must be distinguished from one another.

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Scientific Modes of Perception and Expression

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