Please pass me the skin coloured crayon! Semantics, socialisation, and folk models of race in contemporary Europe

Martina Zimmermann*, Carsten Levisen, Thorhalla Beck, Cornelia van Scherpenberg

*Corresponding author

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftTidsskriftartikelForskningpeer review


This study explores the cultural semantics of colour words in the four urban, European communities of Munich, Berne, Aarhus, and Reykjavik, focussing on hautfarben (German), hutfarb (Bernese Swiss German), hudfarvet (Danish), and húðlitur (Icelandic), all of which can be translated as ‘skin coloured’. Unlike in English, where skin coloured has fallen out of use due to its racist semantic profile, these words are still widely present within the four communities. Using evidence from a referential colour naming task and semi-structured interviews, our study seeks to reveal the linguistic worldviews and idealised cognitive models embedded in skin-based colour concepts in contemporary German and Scandi- navian languages. Arguing that colour concepts are linguistic constructs through which speakers have learned to pay attention to their visual worlds, we trace the origin of the skin-based colour concept to language socialisation. Our study suggests that children’s use of crayons in pre-schools, homes, and kindergartens have a formative impact on the acquisition of colour concepts in general, and in particular, in acquiring a skin-based colour concept. Apart from ‘crayon socialisation’ and children’s drawing practices, our study points to one other salient aspect of meaning associated with the skin-based colour concept, namely socio-political discourses of multiculturalism, political correctness and racism. Some speakers find it ‘natural’ to use a skin-based colour concept while others find it ‘racist’. Yet regardless of an individual speaker’s views on the matter, they all appear to recognise the specific folk model of race, encoded in hautfarben, hutfarb, hudfarvet and húðlitur. In addition, based on the disagreement among speakers, we do find some evidence that discursive changes in German and Scandinavian languages could lead to similar changes as the ones which have taken place in English (i.e. the replacement of skin coloured with peach or a similar construct). Skin-based colours in Germanic languages also offer new perspectives on visual semantics, the social origins of colour, and on the interface of language, sociality and colour.
TidsskriftLanguage Sciences
Sider (fra-til)35-50
Antal sider16
StatusUdgivet - maj 2015
Udgivet eksterntJa

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