Red cat on black feathers?
Red cat on black feathers: Could it be that somewhere along the line, the ancient words for black and red became confused? Photo by Dreamstime.com
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In their groundbreaking book Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969), Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, argue that the words for color in different languages have a relatively fixed evolutionary path.

The world of color begins with the two basics at the most primitive end of the scale, corresponding roughly to “black” (including all the “cold” colors) and “white” (including all the “warm” colors).

Based on their data from nearly 100 languages, Berlin and Kay found a relatively fixed 7-stage progression to 11 basic colors.

Over the next few weeks we will see whether their theory is borne out in the case of Hebrew. What's certain is that from the get-go, regarding Hebrew's word for black - one of the two basic colors – a snag arises.

While the modern Hebrew word for black, sha-KHOR, does appear in the Bible, it only appears in the post-exilic texts, thus it appears to have been picked up during the Jews' exile in Babylon some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.

The thing is, the bible did have words for red and green, which according to Kay and Berlin should have come later.

Paint it koder?

How do we explain this lack of word for black? Simply enough.

It seems Biblical Hebrew did have a word for “black,” but it wasn’t shakhor. It was - apparently - kadar, though this interpretation of the ancient word has been disputed by the distinguished linguist Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai. He suspects the root k-d-r meant “bow down”.

In any case, in modern Hebrew, k-d-r describes the darkening of the weather and by metaphor, of one’s mood.

If we accept Tur-Sinai’s interpretation, we are indeed left with a problem, as Berlin and Kay's theory would expect Biblical Hebrew to have a word for black, as the Bible abounds with things described as red (as we shall see).

One possibility is that Hebrew did have a word for black (possibly shakhor itself, though that is unlikely, based on related languages) but by chance it doesn’t appear in the limited corpus of Hebrew we find in the Bible.

Another possibility is that adom - the modern Hebrew word for red - was the Biblical Hebrew word for black. The word adom might have referred to a range from black to red (though we would expect the warm color of red to fall under “white” as opposed to “black”).

As for shakhor, the word itself comes from shakhar, a word that appears but once in the Bible, meaning "burnt."

During the Babylonian exile, the word shakhar went through a transformation, turning from "burnt" to "blackened" by the time of the Mishnah. Ultimately the word shakhor was created meaning "soot", and then "black ink made from soot."

It was only during early Middle Ages that shakhor became the word for the darkest of colors.

On Thursday, we will discuss the other basic color in Berlin and Kay’s first stage - “white” or in Hebrew - lavan.