Pulaar: the colour spectrum [English translation]

This post by Oumar Bah is a follow-up on “Kikuyu: colour spectrum and kikuyunised words” which dealt with the expression of colours in Kikuyu, a language spoken in Kenya.

[Cliquer ici pour voir la version originale en Français]


In Peul language (referred to by its speakers as pulaar or fulfulde), colour is expressed by means of adjectival roots. These are placed after the substantive with which they agree in gender (or rather, in noun class) and in number. Here, Pulaar functions like most Niger-Congo languages and in particular like Bantu languages.

  • Basic colours in Pulaar

The basic colours are thus: black « ɓale- », white « rane- », red « woɗe- », yellow « ool- », green « haako- », grey « fur- ».

The adjective « haako- » – contrary to the other colour words above which are adjectival roots – is a secondary adjective formed from the substantive of the noun meaning leaves, canopy. (The link between the colour green and plants is present in many languages around the world).

Let’s have a look at two common noun classes, namely the ‘DAM class which contains many liquids (e.g. « ndiyam » water. Compare the class suffix –am to the Bantu prefix ma-) and the ‘O class in which fall mostly words for humans. We would hence have the following colour adjectives:

ndiyam ɓalejam (black water)
ndiyam ndanejam (white water)
ndiyam mboɗejam (red water)
ndiyam oolam (yellow water)
ndiyam haakojam (green water)
ndiyam puram (grey water)

For the ‘O class, we would have for example « boɗeejo », a light-skinned man (literally: a red person). It is worth noting that the initial consonants of certain adjectives change, for example /w/ → /mb/ or /f/→ /p/. One may also notice that the colour blue is traditionally unknown, which is the reason why Pulaar resorts to words borrowed from English or French, namely mbulu- or bule, depending on the region. As a matter of fact, many world languages do not distinguish between green and blue.

  • Colour as a cultural phenomenon

At first sight, the Pulaar colour spectrum may seem limited in comparison to European languages for instance. The perception of colours is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Thus, if we consider the colours of cows fur, the vocabulary of this pastoral people is enriched with nuances, many of which have no equivalent in French or English.

As a way of example, we may mention « wane » a brown cow, « lahe » a cow whose fur is completely black, « naawe » a cow with an ochre fur, « saye » a cow whose fur is completely white, « sirge » a white cow with small black spots, « terkaaye » a cow whose fur is light brown, « saaje » a cow whose fur is black with a white stripe on the belly, « doobaaye » a cow whose fur is light grey etc. Examples abound.

However, moving away from livestock terminology, the colours brown, pink and orange are assimilated to red in Pulaar. We would thus say « tuuba mboɗeha »for brown trousers (using the adjectival root « woɗe- » meaning red, see above). This confirms our above claim pertaining to the cultural dimension of colours.

Written by Oumar Bah
English translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen

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