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Research Seminar: Caitlin Powell, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

Through Gaelic Eyes: Colour in Literature and Material Culture

Wednesday 06 March 2024 | 13:00
Seòmar Shomhairle, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig
Livestream will also be available

My research began with Gaelic colour perception and use, and how this is distinct from English-language colour perception, particularly in regard to hue and brilliance. The use of aspects other than hue in colour perception is actually quite common around the world, as Gladstone unwittingly demonstrated in his writing on the colour use of Homer. The research foundational research in colour perception was done in English, using English colour distinctions, and asking solely about hue, with no context for the object the colour was attached to. This is an excellent and problematic example of research conducted through an English lens, with no awareness of how this affects the research itself.

When exploring other languages and cultures, it is a mistake to look only for equivalencies with English, or even the dominant Western cultural values. In the example of colour perception it is a mistake to assume that although a culture does not distinguish linguistically between blue and green, that there is no cultural or practical distinction, and worse, that the culture in question is less developed because of this. As can be seen in the portraits of the evangelists in the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospel, as just one example from material culture, there is a distinct separate symbolism for green and blue, connected with John and Mark, respectively. This is despite Gaelic having no one set term to distinguish blue, green, and grey.

Through history, the Gaels have suffered from misunderstanding at best, and prejudice and oppression at worst stemming from an attempt and failure to find equivalent markers of culture and sophistication as the majority-culture English values of the incomers. Context is always necessary when studying an abstract concept such as colour, and without the examples of practical application of colour found in material culture, much can be overlooked or outright ignored. With the field of colour perception and use making up only a tiny example of the depth and richness of the Gaelic language, it is important that we retain our Gaelic way of seeing the world, instead of allowing the English lens to become the universal one.

Caitlin Powell

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