Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Color Me Beaker (Berlin and Kay)

Did you know that many languages have no words for colors like orange, purple or green?

This short video describes Berlin and Kay's "seven-stange evolution of color terms" in languages.  From this, we might ask if there is physical evidence to infer the lexical colors of Beaker language*.

I have some ideas, but first, check it out...

Let's apply this theoretical scheme to the Bell Beaker Culture.  Remember that WHITE, BLACK and RED are Stage 2 development (and as a side note, these three colors are the only PIE lexical colors that can be reconstructed with any certainty.  In fact, they may be the only true lexical colors of PIE, the rest being descriptive, such as "shining", "glimmering", "lightish", "wine-red sea", etc)

What are lexical colors in the Beaker world?

A very decent case can be made that Bell Beakers distinguished BLACK, WHITE and RED.  In fact, we might suspect this just from the antiquity of their culture.  This three-part color scheme appears to have been the decorative colors of Atlantic Megalithic Culture (Bueno Ramirez et al, 2015, below), as well as, the roughly contemporary PIE Culture.  There's a few other circumstantial arguments we can delve into, but let's look at the material evidence.

Beaker Culture seems to have an almost dualistic tendency in contrasting various ideas, from gender to celestials, and probably, coloration.  The contrast between red and white is most apparent in the funerary pottery and a name for the two colors seems likely.


Red and white pottery, red and/or red and white cattle, probably reddish horse coats, red and white petroglyphs, red and white textiles, red-dyed wool or linen.  Certainly they often used ochre or cinnabar in burials.  Some of that was from dyed blankets, in Iberia that might have sometimes included red facial shrouds.  Red hair would have been worthy of linguistic distinction.  Of course, pure copper would belong in the red category (using the Berlin and Kay definition).  Semetite amber is red.   (Baltic amber is lighter, but we can't be sure they made any lexical distinction at this stage.  More on this in a moment...)


Quite a few things of importance were almost contrastively white in their culture.  Dairy products are uniquely white.  The inlay paste of their funerary pottery was usually gypsum, bone or other combinations. The ivory buttons and toggles must have accented darker clothing.   Whalebone pommels would have been striking.  Their cows may have been a single coat of red, but some may have had white faces or bellies.  Wooly sheep are white.  Salt is white, and interestingly the etymology of the Basque word for white probably comes from a word meaning 'salt'.

Of course every language understands black, as white and black are Stage 1 colors.  Jet would have been the most striking, but bitumen would be known to many men making arrows.  Charcoal is black, and that would have made pigment for tattoos and paint.

Beyond this, it is very difficult to imagine much else in the color palette of the Beaker tongue.  For one, it appears unlikely that many peoples of this time distinguished between green or blue, much less anything more interesting like purple (which obviously came very late).

Proto-Indo-Europeans, for example, seem to have had difficulty expressing many colors as distinct lexical terms.  A lot of the examples that could be used to describe a greenish-blue sea or gold, seem to use descriptive words like 'shimmering' or 'shining'.  A lot of words for these other colors are interchangeable and describe totally different colors in the daughter tongues.

Stage III?

It is possible that another color existed in Beaker Culture/PIE Culture *-ghel.  From this we get a color yellow from 'shining' which can be used to describe the Sun, gold and (quite specifically) Baltic Amber.  The debate is whether this had crystalized into an actual lexical term that literally meant YELLOW, or does this apply to anything shiny like the sparkle of the sea?

There is one other color in Stage III, that is green.  This is another debate topic for PIE, but what about Beakers?  Greenstone bracers seem to have been prestigious among Beaker archers.  In the age before this the green axeheads.  Obviously the oxidation of copper is green, and copper ores would be green as well.

So where were the Beakers?  Probably somewhere between 2 and 3.

See also:

Mallory and Adams in "The Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World"

"Natural and artificial colors: the megalithic monuments of Brittany" (Bueno Ramirez et al, 2015)
Antiquity 89 (2015): 55-71.  toi: 10.15184/aqy.2014.29

Proto-Indo-European Etyma.  University of Texas at Austin

"A Taste for Green..." (Rodriguez-Rellan et al, 2020

* Let's not be retarded.  Beakers certainly were able to communicate with each other in a commonly understood language even if the language of their household or communities varied significantly.


  1. You'd want to at least consider what color words may have been present in proto-Celtic and proto-Italo-Celtic. Beakers certainly wouldn't have had more color words than these stages of linguistic development by them or their descendants, although it is entirely possible that these languages arose by language shift from some different Beaker language following Bronze Age collapse in the Iron Age. See, e.g. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:cel-pro:Colors The existence of a word whose cognate is "glas" in Celtic languages today and historic attested ones to mean "blue-green" (from PIE *-ghel) seems likely. https://omniglot.com/language/celtic/connections/colours.htm https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Celtic/glastos White-yellow-grey-red are reconstructed in Proto-Italic. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:itc-pro:Colors

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  3. I am not a linguist, and find this a bit confusing.

    According to a dictionary I found online, PIE had three different words for black - atros, dhoubhus and krsnos. If it had this many words for a colour that has no variety of tones, I ask myself how it could have had no words at all for several other more varied colours.

    Looking at the words for black in IE languages today (e.g. dubh, schwarz, black, noir, mavros, cernyy, kalee, sev, must), these words appear to have at least several completely different roots. If Bell Beaker communicated through a common PIE language, how could we ascertain which of these root words would it have used to identify the colour black? And how could its language have diverged to such a degree into so many starkly different words?