Colourful microstructures: How Italian dictionaries see colour terms

Carla Marello, Cristina Onesti (2016), in João Paulo Silvestre, Esperança Cardeira & Alina Villalva (eds.),

Colour and colour naming: crosslinguistic approaches, pp. 91-104.

[Estratto da pagg. 91, 101, 102]

This paper aims to analyze how different Italian dictionaries (mainly digital monolingual dictionaries) deal with colour-related terms, in particular as concerns: the attribution of parts of speech; the treatment of new chromonyms and compound colours. […] Our main aim is to analyse how different dictionaries deal with the attribution of more than one part of speech, usually a noun and an adjective, to the same headword, and whether they supply the necessary morphosyntactic information. At a methodological level, we worked with full text queries in digital dictionaries and with queries exploiting part of speech (POS) labels in annotated corpora […]

6. Closing remarks: colourful microstructures might be better
Colour terms are presently studied by linguists because they are deeply tied to emotions and visual experiences. In the past century they were mainly investigated because they showed a high degree of language (and culture) specificity, in spite of the fact that human beings share the same organ of sight.
[…] From our survey, it appears that monolingual dictionaries are rather quick in hosting new (sub)entries for new colours, all the more so when the new colour is a semantic neologism, like apricot, meaning ‘apricot-coloured’ added as an adjective to apricot fruit noun. They often do not give examples for such adjectival use without the company of the word color. It should be important to stress that apricot can be an ADJ of colour in its own right, without color in front of apricot.
Dictionaries are slower in registering morphosyntactic features of colour terms coupled with chiaro ‘light shade’ or scuro ‘dark, deep shade’; yet, we know that languages vary in the way they show agreement between the adjective shade and the colour noun/adj with the head of the noun phrase.
If dictionaries register many shades of basic colours, they do not follow the same microstructure schema in the whole dictionary for all the articles devoted to colour terms.
The Zingarelli dictionary (2016) is probably the only Italian desk dictionary which has massively applied the following formula to colour adjectives deriving from a noun:

In funzione di agg. inv (posposto al sost)
(‘Used as an adj. it is invariable and follows the noun’)

In the Zingarelli dictionary 2016 out of 395 entries containing this formula, 83 are colour terms. A query on the web shows that the invariability of these adjective + noun couplets, as for instance giallo ocra, verde bottiglia, rosso fuoco, is not always observed in the use of the native speaking/writing community. If dictionaries play a key role in defining the morphology of difficult verbs and unusual plural, in the same way, they should note that not only the second member is invariable but that also the colour adjective “becomes” invariable because it is meant as an attribute of elliptical colore : occhi verdi (literally eyes plural green plural) but occhi verde bottiglia (literally ‘eyes plural green singular bottle singular) and not *occhi verdi bottiglia (literally ‘eyes plural green plural bottle singular).

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Annette Klosa-Kückelhaus
Annette Klosa-Kückelhaus
1 anno fa

Reading this essay, I immediately wondered whether we treated color terms more consistently in the German-language monolingual online dictionary elexiko, created and published between 2005 and 2015 at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language in Mannheim (see, than in the various Italian dictionaries Carla Marello and Cristina Onesti examined for their essay.
As a synchronic dictionary, elexiko focuses on the meaning and usage of headwords in the contemporary language. Among the lexicographically described adjectives are the color terms blau ‘blue’, gelb ‘yellow’, grau ‘gray’, grün ‘green’, rosa ‘pink’, rot ‘red’, schwarz ‘black’, and weiß ‘white’. In addition, the dictionary includes word articles that contain only automatically compiled data (e.g. grammar, word formation, automatically selected corpus examples). Among these are numerous other color adjectives (aubergine ‘aubergine’, beige ‘beige’, himmelblau ‘sky blue’ etc.), but they are not considered here because these articles do not contain definitions. In addition to the adjectives, the neutral nouns (das) Blau, Gelb, Grün, Rot, Schwarz, and Weiß are also included. The definitions for the color adjectives follow the same pattern:
„Mit rosa weist man einem Gegenstand, einem Körperteil, einem Tier, Pflanzen(Teilen) usw. die Eigenschaft zu, von blassroter Farbe (wie z.B. die Farbe der Akeleiblüten, Flamingos und Ferkel) zu sein.“ – ‚By pink one assigns to an object, body part, animal, plant (parts), etc., the property of being of pale red color (such as the color of columbine flowers, flamingos, and piglets).’
Where necessary, the entries include a note that some of the color adjectives (such as rosa) are considered invariant adjectives but also occur in declined forms, which is considered a norm problem by some language purists.
This brief analysis shows: When certain groups of words are edited by the same editorial team members, very consistent results can be obtained. And yet there are differences in the lexicographic description. These are partly due to the different properties of the lexemes (e.g. declinable versus non-declinable color adjectives), but may also have practical editorial reasons: For example, the nouns (das) Grau and (das) Pink were not edited in elexiko because they did not meet the minimum frequency required for inclusion in the dictionary.
What I learned from the paper by Carla Marello and Cristina Onesti, and the data of my analysis, is that even with the most careful work and thoughtful descriptive steps, inconsistencies can occur that users should not notice when they look up just one of the color adjectives, but that clever minds like the authors of this paper may well notice when they look at a whole group of words and their treatment in a dictionary. Nevertheless, careful work is as essential for the linguistic analyses of dictionaries such as the present one as it is for writing dictionaries.