Any Color You Like
Today’s topic comes from ingsve over at the Dothraki fora. The inventory of color terms in any given language is likely to prove more interesting than one would imagine at first blush. In discussing color terms in Dothraki, then, I’ll add layers of complexity as we move on, starting with the simplest information.
Here are the ten basic color terms of Dothraki:
|English Term||Dothraki Term||Color Swatch|
There is no “orange”; that term is covered usually by veltor; sometimes by virzeth. Otherwise, those color terms can be used freely to cover the colors we have in English. The forms above are adjectival. To change them to verbs, simply add -at to those that end in a consonant, and -lat to those that end in a vowel.
Having said that, those who’ve studied Dothraki a bit will notice that at least three of those terms should look suspicious—specifically, those ending in -ven. And if you thought so, you’re right. Though Dothraki now has words to cover ten of the eleven basic color terms, they’re not equal, linguistically.
For many years, Dothraki had the basic set of color terms listed below. For each color, its prototypical value is given, followed by the range of colors it was used for.
|English Term||Dothraki Term||Color Swatch||Color Range|
And before that there were fewer color terms (for example, dahaan, in a time long before the present, derived ultimately from a type of grass called dahana. Prior to this, thelis was used for most blues and greens). As Dothraki khalasars met with traders, caravans and cities around the edges of the Dothraki Sea, they encountered new products, new types of clothing, new dyes, and found a need for new terms. As they prefer native terms to borrowings, they would often derive terms from Dothraki words, such as:
|Dothraki Word||Color Term||Image||Color Swatch|
|rea “internal organ”||reaven|
The two words ending in -ven should be self-explanatory (-ven is used to mean something like “-like” or “-ish”). Shiqeth is actually a backformation. The original word is shiqethi, which is the word for “iron”; shiqeth was formed on analogy with virzeth (and the other CV(C)CVC color words thelis and veltor).
That explains everything except nozhoven thus far, but that one’s going to lead to a whole other topic: horse breeds (or colorings). There are quite a number of terms for specific types of horses, but the only ones that got used in the show were the generic “horse” (hrazef), and the word for “mount” (sajo). (Hmmm… Though now that I think of it, maybe vezh, “stallion”, and lame, “mare”, made it in, too.) It seems to me that words for the type of horse would be used more commonly, but that would require seeing the actual horse being referred to (and who knows if it would change from shoot to shoot, episode to episode). So I never managed to use any of the words for particular breeds of horse in the first season (we’ll see if any make it in in the future).
Anyway, the word nozho is the word for a chestnut horse, which is brown (anywhere from a reddish brown to a light brown), with a mane that is mostly the same color (sometimes lighter). Nozhoven, then, is a word meaning “like a chestnut horse”—or, in this case, “similar in color to a chestnut horse”. Most horses have a color term associated with them in this way, but since chestnuts tend to be largely one color all over (and since there was no other term for “brown”), nozhoven was adopted as the word for “brown”.
There are dozens of horse coloring types, and also related terms having to do with horse coloring, and there’s no time to go through all of them. I did want to introduce some, though, since the horse color terms are used in another unique way. In English, we’ve taken words from a number of places to describe skin color: actual color terms (white, black…); plants or food (olive, mocha…); light descriptors (light, dark…); and other sources (tan, pale, splotchy…). In Dothraki, all such descriptors come from horse colorings. Here are some common ones:
|Horse Term||Color Term||Image||Approximation|
|cheyao “dark bay”||cheyaoven|
The way I figure it, if the Dothraki refer to you with a horse term, it’s a sign of respect, as horses of all types are to be respected. If they refer to you as some sort of lesser animal, though (like oqet, a sheep), then it’s time to worry.
Now just a few words about how to use them. Color terms are all stative predicates, and so can be used postpositively as adjectives, or as verbs, e.g.:
- Haz rhaggat virzetha. “That cart is red.”
- Anha vavvirsak haz rhaggat virzetha nakhaan! “I’m going to burn that red cart to the ground!”
The word for “color” itself is visshiya, which derives, ultimately, from vish, which means “forehead”. For different qualities of color (to make finer distinctions), one uses words that would translate to “light” and “dark”, but they’re not actually the words “light” and “dark”. The Dothraki conceptualize color value in terms of water depth, darker colors being deep (ao), and lighter colors being shallow (dei). Then each of those terms can be modified to delineate further. Here’s an example:
|Dothraki Term||English Translation||Color Swatch|
|virzeth adein||shallower red|
|virzeth dei||shallow red|
|virzeth ao||deep red|
|virzeth asaon||deeper red|
That’s a basic introduction to color terms in Dothraki. There’s more to be said, certainly, but this should be enough to allow one to use some color terms in writing and in speech.