The Colours of New Latin

A badger labelled with the colours attributed to it in Sibbald (1684)

Badger (Meles meles) photographed by Mark Robinson, CC-BY 2.0. Colour analysis is mine.

I’m currently working on translating and analysing a seventeenth century natural history text called Scotia Illustrata by Robert Sibbald. It’s lots of fun but there are occasional bits I have trouble with. This week I looked at how sophisticated his colour terminology is, and found something very surprising…

Sibbald uses some colours which are easy to understand like caeruleus (‘cerulean’, blue). However, he also uses some which are not really clear: e.g. fusco (usually translated ‘dusky’) and the difference between rutilus (red) and ruber (red).

At the same time I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the established anthropological theory of colours (based on Berlin & Kay 1969). This theory holds that languages start off with two colour terms (light and dark) and then steadily level up, gaining additional terms until they reach the maximum possible civilisation limit (8-11 basic colours). Languages gain colours in a set order, which suggests that there are some kind of natural prompts or instinctual frameworks which define our colour-terminology. This is a very stable theory, and has found a great deal of supporting evidence over the years. Unfortunately, the theory also has some racist implications, most notably that only languages from the rich, industrial countries are ‘evolved’ enough to name all the colours. The term “more evolved” especially has racist connotations when applied to the languages of less rich nations. Further, how do we know modern languages have reached the limit? Does this mean that the capitalists at Dulux with their 110 shades of beige paint (yes, seriously) are secretly advanced not human? Food for thought…

I wanted to see how well the text I am translating, Sibbald’s (1684) Scotia Illustrata fits with this theory. One of the advantages of translating Natural History is that I usually know exactly what Sibbald is talking about, because what he is describing still exists. That makes a work-around possible.

All I had to do was list the colours commonly used, and find examples of which animal fits which colour. This is made much easier because of my digital humanities approach. I can search the text for every reference to each colour, and use a computer tool to copy exactly what shade Sibbald is describing based on modern photographs of the animals in question.

I did that, and here is the result. These are the most common colours:

palette of sibbald_simple

A palette of the colours used by Robert Sibbald in his description of the animals of Scotland – thanks to Tom Dawkes for corrections.

  • Rutilus – ginger/orange
  • Ruber – red
  • Coccineus – crimson red
  • Flavus – yellow
  • Viridus – green
  • Caeruleus – blue
  • Cinereus – grey
  • Fulvus – golden/light brown
  • Fusco – brown/dark brown
  • Niger – black
  • Albus – matt white
  • Candidus – gloss white/flashing white

Each of these colours on the palette above was digitally copied from a photograph of the animal in question, meaning these are definitely the shades Sibbald was describing.

Sibbald commonly uses twelve colours in his descriptions of animals [see note 1]. This does not include other colours he uses more rarely (e.g. sanguineus blood red; griseus, grey; luteus, creamy yellow). Sibbald so far, does not use a word for pink and purple (although I suspect this may come up in the plants section). However, he does have two (synonymous?) words for red, and two words for white (one matt and one gloss, although both are used for the badger). He also has one gold-brown and one dark brown.

Despite lacking pink and purple, I was surprised to find that the seventeenth century New Latin colour palette is actually more sophisticated than the Berlin & Kay’s top stage language (Berlin & Kay 1969)[see note 2]. That’s the theory explained at the beginning of this post, about the way languages acquire colour words. If we were following Berlin & Kay’s theory, we could suggest Sibbald’s New Latin has a ‘more evolved’ vocabulary than our post-industrial languages!


Looking at the reds here gives me a thought. The most common term used for ‘red’ is rutilus. This is not the ordinary Latin word for orange (aureus, golden) Before completing this exercise, in my mind rutilus was a typical red. However, as you can see, it is actually a gingery-orange. I would not translate rutilus as ‘red’ any more.

Think of a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) or a red fox (Vulpes vulpes). We call them ‘red’ but these animals are actually orange.Foxes and squirrels are red in the same way that red-headed people have ‘red’ hair. If I ordered a red shirt and it turned up in fox-red I might be disappointed with the colour, because the fox colour is orange, not red at all.

Two foxes lie down, one has its head up. Their coats are a reddish-orange colour.

Shown here – the red fox, soon to be renamed the orange fox? Photograph taken by GDallimore at a farm in Shropshire.

The default shade of a colour is called by colour anthropologists “the focal colour”, and is the shade which a native speaker will prefer when given a colour chart and asked to show the colour. Focal colours are universal – every language acknowledges the same shades (Regier et al. 2005). This suggests that the perfect red in my mind is the generic red of most cultures. It has not changed over time.

The red fox and red squirrel are not neally this red. They are however, almost the perfect orange. So why are they called the red squirrel and the red fox rather than the orange squirrel and the orange fox? Most probably they were named before the term orange was invented in English. This is the theory under ‘red’ in The Oxford English Dictionary, see also discussion at the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. OED also gives the first attestation of the colour orange in 1534, and the first attestation of red fox (in a surname) from 1306. Languages obtain a word for red much earlier than a word for orange, so use the term for red to mean orange until they invent a word for it (Berlin & Kay 1969).

I suppose my question is, what happened? The language evolution theory would just suggest the language naturally got more sophisticated and (by inference) better.

I would like to offer a very hypothetical ecocritical interpretation of the change. Colour terminology seems to have been influenced by the easy availability over the industrial era of popular inks and dyes in deeper-than-nature shades (McNeill 1972). Over the last few decades this has been compounded — now computers allow us to create colours as deep as we can imagine instead of tying us to the natural world. Perhaps, because of these developments, our conception of what is red has become more artificial over the course of the modern period.  Perhaps pre-industrial societies do not need so many colours because they only need to describe the colours found in nature, rather than colours obtained by complicated dyes and generated by computers. If the terms red fox and red squirrel really represent linguistic fossils from when orange was a shade of red, this seems an ‘evolution’ away from colours observed in nature, as described in Sibbald’s New Latin. The change is a symptom of the industrialised world’s isolation from nature.


  1. Classists might object to some of these colours as not being actual colour terms. For example, cinereus is usually translated as ‘ashen’ by Mullens (1912) who previously translated a small extract from this text. Likewise coccineus means cochineal-like, and if you go back far enough, caeruleus means sky-like. Those are the original, literal meaning of the terms, but I don’t agree we should translate them like that. Sibbald does not use cinereus to talk about actual ash in this text. He does however, use it as his staple word for ‘grey’. It is far more common than griseus which he also uses. Since these words are being used commonly, on their own to describe colours and nothing else, then they are functioning as colours.
  2. Just like in English these terms are flexible. Each of these colours can also become a verb, by adding an -ico suffix. Albicat (it is whitened), nigricat (it is blackened) and cinerascit (it is greyified) are the most common. Tom Dawkes has pointed out to me that this is an alternative to the use of de– as in dealbat (I become white), in the Latin Vulgate Psalms 50:9.  The prefix sub- is also often added which means -ish, e.g. subviridus, greenish (Traupman 1997, pp.251–2).


Berlin, B. & Kay, P., 1969. Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution, Berkeley: University of California Press.

McNeill, N.B., 1972. Colour and colour terminology. Journal of linguistics, 8(1), pp.21–33.

Mullens, W.H., 1912. Robert Sibbald and his Prodromus. British Birds, 6, pp.34–57.

Regier, T., Kay, P. & Cook, R.S., 2005. Focal colors are universal after all. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(23), pp.8386–8391.

Traupman, J.C., 1997. Conversational Latin for oral proficiency, Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers.


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