The Viking Age Color Palette and Old Norse Color Words

There’s been a few articles that have come out about this — chemical analysis show the potential paint palette of the Viking Age Danish royal hall of Lejre (the form in Old Norse was possibly *Leir or *Leira, which relate to clay — see Cleasby-Vigfusson, p.386). A very short article is the one by Archaeology.org. A more in depth article can be found at Science Nordic by Vickie Isabella Westen.

If you follow a link to a similar article about “What colour did the Vikings paint their houses” at Science Nordic, I should point out something the author, Johanne Uhrenholt Kusnitzoff, mentions in the section “Did they perceive colours as we do?”. In this section, Kusnitzoff quotes Amalie Skovmøller, a Ph.D. student at the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen, as noting that Romans perceived color differently than we do today, mentioning how they described things as purple which we would not define as purple modernly. Now, I feel I should point out that there is a difference in what Skovmøller is describing — the differing color terms used to describe a section of the color spectrum — versus a more physical concept of color perception — which is the question of whether some individual humans perceive the color spectrum differently than other humans (which itself is a tricky question to test).

Color terms is a topic that we covered briefly in my Linguistic classes at college. Different languages have different amounts of color words (some have only two or three main terms and some have quite a few — English has 11 main terms, and a huge number of secondary color terms), and those color words cut up the spectrum in different ways. A good example is how the spectrum of what American English speakers would define as blue and green, is actually labeled under different color words depending on the languages. Or, as my friend Chimera points out, how the mailboxes, which clearly fall into the orange spectrum for American English speakers, is described as keltainen in Finnish (which covers what English-speakers would usually identify as the “yellow” spectrum). This is a lexicon distinction, not a physical perception distinction. Though, that said, there is at least a couple studies out there that suggest that how color is grouped in terms might affect how a language speaker notice colors.

It’s not only language that plays into color distinctions, but technological level seems to play a part, so color word distinctions can change over time. Kirsten Wolf has written several articles on specifically Old Norse color terms, analyzing various aspects to help determine what part of the color spectrum the term refers. I don’t see an easy list to reference here, so my list might not be comprehensive:

  • 2005. “Reflections on the Color of Esau’s Pottage of Lentils” in Gripla 16: pp. 251-257, (on Stofnun Árna Magnussonar ‘the Arni Magnusson Institute’)
  • 2006. “The Color Blue in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature” in Scripta Islandica
    57 (2006), pp. 55-78, (on The International Saga Conference Archive)
  • 2006. “Some Comments on Old Norse-Icelandic Color Terms” in Arkiv för
    nordisk filologi, Vol. 121 (2006): pp. 173-192, (on Open Journal at Lund University)
  • 2007. “The Colors of the Rainbow in Snorri’s Edda” in Maal og minne (2007):
    pp. 51-62, (on Research Gate)
  • 2007. “Snorri’s Use of Color Terms in Gylfaginning” in Skandinavistik 37
    (2007): pp. 1-10.
  • 2009. “The Color Grey in Old Norse–Icelandic Literature” in Journal of English
    and Germanic Philology 108 (2009): pp. 222-238, (on JSTOR)
  • 2010. “Towards a Diachronic Analysis of Old Norse-Icelandic Color Terms: The
    Cases of Green and Yellow” in Orð og tunga 12 (2010): 109-130, (on Tímarit.is)
  • 2015. ”Non-basic Color Terms in Old Norse-Icelandic” in New Norse Studies (2015): pp. 389–433, (on Cornell University’s eCommons)
  • 2017. “The color brown in Old Norse-Icelandic literature”, (on John Benjamins Publishing Co. website)

In looking for the above list, I have also discovered 2 new articles I shall be reading, by Jackson Crawford (Professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, with a very informative YouTube channel, and a profile at Academia.edu):

 

While it’s not specifically Norse-centric, I also recommend reading Master Owen Alun’s article on color perception on his Loonmusings blog.