Rutkowski & Łozińska

Color Names in Polish Sign Language (PJM): A CorpusBased Study

Paweł Rutkowski & Sylwia Łozińska - University of Warsaw


Recent typological studies on sign languages of the Deaf have made important contributions to our understanding of color naming strategies in human communication. As discussed in de Vos & Pfau (2014), sign languages of relatively small village communities (whose emergence is usually related to a high incidence of deafness) differ from those used by larger communities in urban areas by having a limited lexical set in the domain of color. Adamorobe Sign Language (Nyst 2007), Ban Khor Sign Language (Nonaka 2004), Providence Island Sign Language (Woodward 1989) have only three color names (BLACK, WHITE and RED), whereas the color vocabulary of Inuit Sign Language (Schuit 2014) is limited to two signs: RED and BLACK. Other colors are referred to by pointing at an appropriate object. The situation looks very different in most urban sign languages, whose color vocabularies generally reflect those of spoken languages that surround them.

The aim of this paper is to discuss and exemplify color naming strategies observed in Polish Sign Language (polski język migowy, usually abbreviated as PJM) and to present detailed data on the frequency of use of color-related vocabulary in the PJM corpus. PJM is a natural visual- spatial language used by the Deaf community in Poland. It emerged around 1817, with the foundation of the first school for the deaf in Poland. The present study derives from a large- scale research project aimed at documenting PJM through the compilation of an extensive and representative corpus of annotated video material showing Deaf people using their language in a variety of different contexts. Data is collected exclusively from signers who either have Deaf parents or have used PJM since early school age. Recording sessions always involve two signers and a Deaf moderator. The procedure of data collection is based on an extensive list of tasks to be performed by the two informants. Typically, the signers are asked to react to certain visual stimuli, e.g. by describing a scene, naming an object, (re-)telling a story, or explaining something to their partner. The elicitation materials include pictures, videos, graphs, comic strips etc. The raw material obtained in the recording sessions is further tokenized, lemmatized, annotated, glossed and translated using the iLex software.

For the purposes of the present paper, we have analyzed signed utterances produced by 44 corpus informants. We have scanned this sub-corpus for color-related terminology, calculating the number of occurrences of each lexical item. This careful inspection of corpus data showed that the eleven basic color categories listed by Berlin & Kay (1969) (white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and grey) have all been lexicalized in PJM. In the sample we have analyzed, they were used 972 times. Other color-related terms found in the data were limited to LILAC, SILVER and GOLDEN (24 occurrences in total). Color signs were often accompanied by the signs DARK and LIGHT (forming phrases such as RED DARK, RED LIGHT). The most frequent color terms are: WHITE (195 tokens), RED (164 tokens) and BLACK (131 tokens). These findings support the universal patterns described by Berlin & Kay (1969). Our paper discusses the corpus frequency data in detail and provides examples of how PJM color terms are used.

Having compiled the list of all color terms attested in the corpus of present-day PJM, we compared it to the earliest known linguistic description of the lexicon of PJM (Hollak & Jagodziński 1879). Although Hollak & Jagodziński’s remarks concerning articulatory nuances are often imprecise, our examination shows that only four PJM color signs (BLACK, BLUE, YELLOW and GOLDEN) have not changed since 1879. Three more signs (WHITE, RED and GREEN) have been modified with respect to one articulatory feature but are still clearly related to their 19th-century predecessors. The remaining color signs are later additions.


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de Vos, C. & R. Pfau. 2014. Sign language typology: The contribution of rural sign languages. Annual Review of Linguistics 1: 265-288.

Hollak, J. & T. Jagodziński. 1879. Słownik mimiczny dla głuchoniemych i osób z nimi styczność mających. Warszawa: IGO.

Nonaka A. 2004. The forgotten endangered languages: Lessons on the importance of remembering from Thailand’s Ban Khor Sign Language. Language in Society 33: 737-767.

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Schuit J. 2014. Signs of the Arctic: Typological aspects of Inuit Sign Language. PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam.