In what is perhaps one of the most memorable articles I ever read as an undergraduate and aspiring linguist, Berlin and Kay (1969) set up a system of categorizing languages by how many color terms there are. Here’s a wikipedia description. But the main point here, as I probably gloss over and terribly represent the article at hand, is that every language has at least a “whitish and blackish” color, and some will also have red. Then there will be the addition of either green or yellow (which if you think about it, are pretty much shades of the same), and then they will have green and yellow. Later comes blue, etc. The highest stages of all (such as English) will have at least eleven color terms.
Which brings me to today’s Spanish lesson. Celeste. Which, if you are feeling rakish, you might like to pronounce like Spanish speakers do: SAY-less-tay. Celeste was very important to my day today on two separate occasions, and to not write her (because with a name like celeste, how could this color be anything but feminine?) a blog entry would be unthinkable.
This morning, as on many mornings, I drank a cup of coffee. But this cup of coffee I did not drink at home, and then I was going directly to the gym where I would be working with Cristián, a trainer. Chileans brush their teeth obsessively and are very sensitive to food odors. So off I went to my local newsstand and asked for some bigtime. Pause for a moment to properly parse that sentence. No, not ask for some, bigtime. Ask for some bigtime. This being Chile’s somewhat putty-like answer to Dentyne.
I wanted to be refreshed, so I asked for bigtime refrescante. He handed me the red gum. “No,” I said, “refrescante.” He asked me what color it was, and I told him, celeste (light blue). And so it arrived.
Chewing my gum, which is, in fact light blue itself, I entered the gym and inquired about my missing Ipod, hoping against hope that an honest and good samaritan might have found it and turned it in. “What color is it?” inquired Rose, at the front desk. “Celeste” I said, and lo! there it was, in the lost and found, and its corresponding logbook, entered as MP3, celeste.
What is so strange to me about this is that celeste, is kind of a stand-alone color in Spanish. It’s not “light” anything or “dark” anything or color-ish. It’s celeste. Like we have the word aqua, or turquoise. But when was the last time you heard a man (for example) purposely describe one of the many hues of blue as anything but blue-green or green-blue, or maybe light bluish? Most would not use the specialized color term. But in Spanish, all roads lead to celeste. There is no other way to say the color. Which doesn’t make men any less manly. It just makes celeste feel extremely important. I know, because she told me. And also, my breath is fresh and my music accessible. All in all, a good day.