Why is a wedding dress white (at least in modern western culture)?

When someone’s in a black mood, what does that mean?

If you call some ‘green’, how experienced are they?

Colours mean many different things in different cultures, but most often that meaning is imputed by metaphor or analogy – so there are a few of dominant colour associations that span cultures, such as black denoting the darkness of night (and therefore all the things humans fear most) and white denoting the brightness of day (and therefore all the things we associate with daylight).

There’s a reason why it’s one of the most important lessons when you learn a new language – learning about the colour symbolism of a culture can prevent social gaffes, and gives you an insight into the underlying metaphors of the whole culture (not just the language. So let’s jump in to have a look at the colours ngesiZulu:

Red is -bomvu, and is derived from the word for red ochre or red soil, i(li)bomvu. All of the colours ngesiZulu are descriptive elements called Relatives, as they relate the thing being described to some other thing or action (much like a shorthand metaphor). This one links redness to the red ochre, which has had spiritual significance to humans as long as we’ve been having spiritual thoughts – traces of the colour have been found in the earliest symbolic burials, hundreds of thousands of years ago. To the amaZulu (and many other groups of people in Africa), -bomvu is associated with many things:

1. the colour red in all tints (scarlet, crimson, chestnut, golden etc), the colour of blood and soil and certain oxen

2. ripeness, of fruit and corn (even when the fruit doesn’t redden when ripe)

3. idiomatic meanings: indlala ebomvu = a ‘red’ famine = an extreme famine; ukubheka ngamehlo abomvu = to look with red eyes = to expect with eagerness / to be wide awake; ukuba nenhliziyo ebomvu = to have a red heart = to be bad tempered.

-bomvu is not the only word for red, but it is the most commonly used one.

When looking at colour, there are in fact 8 different relatives of redness (and about 10 different ideophones of redness). But those can wait for a future post.

The remaining colours to focus on are -mhlophe, -mnyama, -luhlaza, -liphuzi & -nsomi. Have a look at this next post to learn more about colour.