White dog
White dog Photo by Haaretz
Text size
related tags

As discussed in Tuesday’s Word of the Day, white is the second of the two basic colors with which languages began, the other being black. At least so postulate Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in their groundbreaking book "Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution" (1969).

According to the two, the earliest human languages started with only two words for color: black, which included all the dark, “cold” colors, and white, which included all the bright and “warm” colors. Over the generations, as languages evolved, more colors were added.

In the next few weeks we'll look at the Hebrew words for color and see if the Hebraic evolution of spectrum historically matches what Berlin and Kay posited. So far, our quest has not gone smoothly. We have seen that with black, Hebrew shrugged off the researchers’ theory, mainly because the word 'shakhor' – black in modern Hebrew – never appears in the bible, though "later" colors red and green certainly do.

And what about white?

Unlike shakhor, lavan (and its feminine counterpart levana) make quite a lot of appearances in the bible, describing hair and horses and other things. The word itself seems to be related to the Arabic word for milk - laban (though the Arabic word for white is different – abitz. That word, by the way, comes from the Arabic and Hebrew word for egg - beitza).

And while it has no agreed-upon word for 'black,' in fact in addition to lavan, the Bible has not one but two synonyms for white: khur - which biblical Hebrew shares with Aramaic, and tzakhor.

Khur fell out of use over the generations,but tzakhor has made it to the modern era, though its use is limited to highbrow literature and poetry.

So to conclude, the Hebrew of the Bible abounds with things described as white, which is as Berlin and Kay posit. Next Tuesday, we will look at the color red: according to their research - all languages with but three words for colors have this as their third word.