Discussions on colour terms have elicited serious attention from different scholars in various fields around the world. Cognizant of the significant of colour terms in a language, basis must be deciphered on the grounds of empirical evidence about how people genuinely use colour terms in their daily lives. This paper attempts to discuss colour terms in Tumbuka language spoken in the eastern province of Zambia and Malawi. It will begin by looking at the anthropology of colour terms in the world through a variety of contemporary and historical sources. The scope will be highlighted and how colour terms are being handled in Tumbuka language. This will finally led to conclusion.

1.1 Scope and History of Colour Terms.
The paper will also explore the historical development of colours at a universal level mentioning the earliest scholars involved in the development of colour terms in the world. It will also highlight the most basic colour terms in Tumbuka language, how they are used, what they represent, idiophones and ambiguities involving colour terminologies.

Historically, debates on the science of colour terms started seriously after 1969 when Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s published an influential book in titled the Basic colour terms. These scholars argued that the basic colour terms were obtained following both the synchronic and diachronic research aspects involving more than seventy-eight native languages. The synchronic results were that languages vary in number of basic colour terms from a minimum of two terms to a maximum of eleven and this was proved in many languages which considered and later declared that all languages around the world concomitantly fall in the same trend. The diachronic conclusion was that if languages are ordered according to the basic colour terms, the sequence of encodings of basic colour terms are tightly constrained in such a way that if a language has two basic colour terms, the colours would be black and white and such a language would be considered as a stage one language. Stage two languages will add red so that it is black, white and red. Stage three will add either yellow or green so that it becomes black, white red, green and yellow. The entire sequence comprised seven stages and eleven colour terms. Berlin and Kay interpreted these as stages in the evolutionary sequence and it is this interpretation that has brought controversy amongst scholars and instituted a new way of thinking in several disciplines, which include anthropology, psychology, philosophy and linguistics.

1.2 Abbreviations, Terms and Definitions in the essay.
vi………..intrastive verb
a/b………a is class in singular form while b is its plural form
ideo……..ideophone which try to emphasise on the degree of something.
adj………adjective which give more information about the noun
verb…… action or doing word
intrastive verb…caries no object.
Noun……names a thing, situation and place


The predominant view of linguistic relativity principle gave way to cross cultural colour universals that could be identified in all languages. They argue that language determine our thought and the way we perceive colours and the world in particular. The fact that there are different languages of the world, colour terms will be perceived differently according to those languages.

Berlin and Kay received a number of criticisms on their influential book published in 1969 from various scholars like Barbara Saunders who contested that the theory of universal colour categories and basic colour terms common to all languages does not apply. Debating in her paper ‘revisiting basic colour terms’(2000), Barbara proposes that Berlin and Kay only worked against the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity in their experiments. She further argued that their study was constructed in a way which made results seem evident when they were deduced from prior commitments and that research techniques were not effective. She finally declares that the Berlin and Kays thesis is built on layers of mistakes which produce misinterpretations of colour terminologies. Despite these criticisms, their study was widely accepted and it was a landmark on which later studies were built on. Their theory marked the evolutionary development of colour terms in all languages around the world. In 1978 Kay and McDaniel further developed the original theory by incorporating the study of perceptual physiology to explain the universality of basic colour categories.


Like many languages of the world, Tumbuka have a good number of colour terms and other colour related concepts.

3.1 List of Colour terms and ideophones
there are a number of colours and ideophones in Tumbuka language

Colour Ideophone
(i) -fipa ‘black’ …………………………. bii
(ii) -tuŵa ‘white’ ………………………….. tuu
(iii) sweta ‘red’ ……………………………. cee
(iv) biliŵili ‘green’ ………………………….. biliŵiliŵili
(v) tuŵululku ‘grey’ …………………………… tuŵuluu
(vi) njongwa ‘yellow’
(vii) ng’alalala ‘silver colour’
(viii) mabyangamabyanga ‘various colours on one thing’
(ix) pepo ‘purple’
(x) bulauni’brown’

3.2 Variations and uses of colour terms and ideophones

The way colours and colour related terms are used vary in Tumbuka depending on the context.
3.2.1 –fipa ‘black’
To express something in black colour or appearance, various phrases are used as in the following.
(i) –fipa (adj)
Example (a)
Chola cifipa, ‘black bag’ literally means ‘bag which is black’

(ii) –fipa (n class 9)
Example (b)
Kwafipa tiyeni ‘it is dark let’s go’

(iii) fipa (vi)
Example (c)
fipa luŵilo ‘get black or dark quickly’

(iv) bii (ideo)
Example (d)
Makala ngafipa aya kuti bii ‘this charcoal is very black’ .
Other terms relating to black, dirty and dark are binkha mostly relating to dirty. Zyelele is relating to dark especially used in the evenings when the sun has just set.

3.2.2 –tuŵa ‘white’

(i) –tuŵa (adj)
Example (e)
Syati yituŵa ‘white shirt’

(ii)-tuŵa (vi)
Example (e)
tuŵishyani maji ‘make the water white (holy)’ common in Christian churches.

(iii) tuu, tututu, mbee (ideo)
Example (g)
Mbale yatuŵa yati na tuu, tututu, mbee ‘plate is white, or clean’.

3.2.3 swesi ‘red’
(i) –swesi (adjective)
Example (h)
sopo yiswesi ‘red soap’

(ii) sweta (vi)
Example (i)
Wasweta musuni (musuzu) ‘soup has become red’.

(iii) Cee, Cecece (ideo)
Example (j)
Nchese yasweta kuti na cecece ‘weeds are red’.

3.2.4 biliŵiliŵili ‘green’
(i) biliwila (vi)
Munda wangoma wabiliŵila ‘ maize field is green’

(ii)biliwiliwili (ideo)
Khuni labiliŵila kuti biliŵiliŵiliŵili ‘tree is very green’

3.2.5 tuŵuluku ‘grey’
(i) –tubuluku (adj)
nkhanda yituŵuluku ‘grey skin’

(ii)-tuŵuluka (vi)
watuŵuluka ‘you have become grey’

(iii) tuŵuluu, tuŵulukuu (ideo)
Example (o)
watuŵa kuti tuŵulukuu ‘you are grey’

3.2.6 njongwa ‘yellow’
Example (p)
njongwa (noun class 9) abokola njongwa ‘….has vomited yellow things’

3.2.7 ng’alalala ‘silver’
Example (q)
ng’alalala (adj) agula motoka yong’alalala ‘…..has bought silver vihecle’.

3.2.8 -a pepo ‘purple’
Example (r)
Pepo (adj) dilesi la pepo ‘purple dress’

3.2.9 -a bulauni ‘brown’
Bulauni (adj) pepala la bulauni ‘brown paper’

3.2.10 Mabyangamabyanga ‘many colours’
Example (t)
Mabyangamabyanga (adj) Chitenje ca mabyangamabyanga ‘chitenge material with many colours’.

Colour terms in Tumbuka language has always occupied a strategic position. These are basically associated with various things which are thought to be attached to their origins. Black colour in some special occasions is usually associated with dark or unpleasant activities and therefore on funerals, people are advised to wear black cloths. White is related to holiness usually when going to church and performing some church activities, people are advised to wear white cloths. Red colour symbolises danger just like the way the world treats it. Other colours like green are not symbolised seriously.

Some colours in this language are used ambiguously. Although users decipher the meaning of the words from the context in which they are used, it does not apply all the time. Take for instance in the examples below.
Example (u)
Tola buluku lofipa uzenalo kuno. ‘ Get and bring a dirty (black) trousers’
In this example, -fipa is used ambiguously. It can mean either dirty or black trousers. However, the meaning usually depend on the context and the situation in which the speaker and the listener and the listener are in. Many colour terminologies in this language are found in such situations. However, meaning is obtained from the context in which the words are used.

The concept of colour terminology is extremely wide and to some extent language specific in the sense that there are distinct terms attached to languages in a certain area. For instance, Tumbuka language have introduced the concept of ideophones which critiques never mentioned in their discussion because they do not have ideophones in their languages relating to colour terminologies. Scholars have long argued that there are universal basic colours, which are common in three quarters of the languages found in the world. The way they are used, their symbolism in nature is basically flowing in the same way. Take for instance colours like white, black, and red they are used nearly in the same way worldwide. Although there might be some variations in the way people use them due different cultural orientation, they all finally converge at the same point. Despite the criticisms from different scholars on Berlin and Kay’s basic colour terms of the world, they still come out prominently in the scientific community. Atleast every language will have some basic colours like black and white. The field of colour categorisation has always been intrinsically multi-and inter-disciplinary, since its beginnings in the nineteenth century. It is true that every language to some extent have their own trends of intuition worldwide. For instance, it has been demonstrated in Tumbuka language the different variations in the way people use and perceive colour terminologies.


Berlin,B and Paul Kay (1969) Basic colour terms: Their universality and evolution.
Berkelesk: University of California Press.
Chad McDaniel (1978) the linguistic significance of the meanings of colour terms.
language 54’ 610-646.

Saunders, Barmbara (2000) Revisiting Basic colour terms. Journal of the royal
anthropological institute 6. 81-99

About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson Mkandwire is a researcher, teacher and writer. He is currently based at the University of Zambia, School of Education, Department of Language and Social Sciences Education.
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