Monday, April 30, 2018

Color words in the Book of Mormon

I was listening to this fascinating RadioLab episode the other day that really opened my mind to the fact that the way we identify colors is a totally cultural phenomenon. An American can stare at a bunch of green squares and fail to see that one of them is completely different from the others because you've always been taught to categorize all those colors the same. Someone from the Himba tribe in Namibia can be shown a bunch of squares and fail to see that one of them is actually cyan, for the same reason. Your eyes are physically built the same way, but your linguistic paradigm has caused your mind to process the images you see in a completely different way.

And apparently researchers have found that ancient cultures develop words for colors in a fairly consistent order, starting with White and Black, then moving on to Red, usually Yellow, and so forth. Blue is pretty consistently the last color that ancient cultures developed a word for.

So this morning during scripture study, I got curious to see how this played out with colors in the Book of Mormon. I'll warn you ahead of time, this is a super rough, back-of-the-napkin type of analysis, and not scientifically rigorous at all, so take it with a grain of salt. But I did find some interesting patterns that I thought I'd share.

I downloaded the Gutenberg project's plain text files of the Book of Mormon, and two other texts to compare:

  1. The Bible: Since the Book of Mormon was purports to be a book of scripture written by people who left Jerusalem for the Americas around 600 BC, and since it was translated into language that mimics the King James Version of the Bible, you can't get around comparing the Book of Mormon to the Bible. It's 2-3 times as long as the Book of Mormon. If I had more time, I'd have liked to compare different sections of the Bible, since they were written at different times, and (in some cases) in different languages.
  2. Last of the Mohicans: This work of fiction was published a few years before the Book of Mormon was. It has about half as many pages. It deals with wars including European settlers and Native American people during the French Indian War (prior to the American Revolution), and the author (James Fenimore Cooper) lived in the same region of the United States as Joseph Smith during this time period.
Then I threw together a LINQPad script to parse all the words out of these books and look for any of the words that Wikipedia lists as common colors in English, and started digging in.

The first thing I had to do was throw out the words "Silver" and "Olive" because those are always used as nouns in the Book of Mormon, not as colors. Having done that, I found what some other people had already noticed: There are very few color words in the Book of Mormon. Of over 20 color words I was searching for, the Book of Mormon only had four: White, Red, Black, and Grey, and they appeared a total of 45 times.

James Fenimore Cooper, by contrast, used eight of these common color words, but managed to pack 274 of them into half the space.

The Bible, with as long as it was, had a still broader assortment of color words, but I suspect some of them (navy, lime) are probably not used as colors.

One thing that fascinated me is that Blue is not only present in the Old Testament (and apparently not in the New Testament), but actually very common. This totally bucks the trend laid out in the Radio Lab episode I listened to, and merited a little research. Apparently the color Blue was (and is) very important to the Jewish people, as some of the cloak tassels required by the Law of Moses are supposed to be dyed blue (tekhelet). Tekhelet was a dye made by boiling the blood of a certain species of sea snail. The process to make that dye was lost around 1300 years ago, and only recently rediscovered, but it definitely played a big role in Old Testament culture.

So, what happens when we put all of this in one chart?

The Bible and Book of Mormon are pretty on-par with each other when it comes to the most common colors, White and Red. Last of the Mohicans and the Bible see similar occurrences of Blue and Green. The Bible has a good dose of Purple, which doesn't show up at all in the other two texts. And, as we noticed earlier, Last of the Mohicans blows the other two books away with its use of White, Red, Black, Gray, and Yellow.

If you suppose the Book of Mormon is really what it purports to be (and I do), this points to a significant linguistic shift from the Book of Mormon peoples from the time they left Jerusalem. It's likely that they lost the ability to make Tekhelet, as well as the purple dyes (also apparently made from sea snails) that were an important part of the Temple decorations and High Priest's garments. The Bible frequently uses the color green to describe the lushness or vitality of plants; perhaps the Book of Mormon landscape made that distinction less important than it was in the area around Jerusalem.

On the other hand, if you suppose the Book of Mormon was just made up by Joseph Smith, then this is just an indication that he was not a very descriptive author. Colors don't show up very often in the other Standard Works, either.

On the gripping hand, this is a tiny corpus, and maybe we shouldn't try drawing any conclusions from such a rough-and-ready analysis. Maybe we need to bring in more books to get a better feel for the standard variation, and divide the scriptural books by author or time period for more nuance.

Take your pick.