Akan definition of Colour
The Akan people have no precise terminologies that assign a ‘name’ which interprets into the meaning of colour the way it is understood in English and other languages. In other words, most of the answers to the question ‘what is colour’ makes very little meaning to a pure Akan speaker whose understanding of colour transcends a scientific definition. In spite of several efforts by contemporary linguists to subject the Akan concept of colour to nomenclatural consideration, the traditional Akan people continue to describe hues by their relationship with similar colours in nature.
Consequently, terminologies in Akan, which are associated with the word colour, are likely to describe what a hue looks like in association with the natural (or in few occasions, manmade environment) or how a hue makes one feel, think or behave. Among numerous attempts at coming up with an Akan word for ‘colour’, the ones many respondents settled on were yɛbea, subea, su, husuo, ahusuo and bↄbea. These words, which mean almost the same in Akan, literally describe the nature, quality or, probably more precisely, the physical look/appearance of something. By implication therefore, the terminologies deduced are more general and their usage go beyond the description of just the colour of an object or a situation under discussion.
Colour names among the Akan people, are often given directly after identifiable objects within the known environment. Therefore, names given to colour in Akan have the tendency of affecting the perception, understanding and accurate adaptation of colour among the Akan people. Name, like colour itself, has strong cultural significance. Therefore, names that are understood in one’s language are likely to have better cultural associations and connections with their people than those that sound foreign.
In this regard, many Akan people are of the opinion that all efforts at identifying names for colours should continue with the culture of associating colours with the local names of known objects among the Akan people. For instance, if there are names such as ahabanmon (fresh leaves) for green and akokↄ serade/akokↄ aŋoa (chicken fat) for yellow, there could also be names like ahabanfunu/ahatawfun (dead leaves) for brown, gyafrane/gyanframa (fire flames) for orange, gon/dwene (gray hair) for gray, etc.
Number of colours
The number of colours recognizable by a traditional Akan are as many as those identifiable and describable in nature. As already indicated however, recognized Akan colour names and their identification are mostly in relation to those discernible in nature, for which reason their descriptions are broadly categorized. The following are colours available in the traditional Akan language.
To a very large extent, kↄkↄↄ, the sound of the name of the colour identified as red among the Akan people is more onomatopoeic than semantical in interpretation. Kↄↄ, the root word, visualizes the sensation of the word glow. Therefore, kↄkↄↄ actually connotes more to complexion with a strong bright colour. It commands an ambience of hot brightness, usually with scorching visual sensation, rather than a simple colour name. For this reason, kↄkↄↄ is attributable to all objects that emit some warmth in their visual ascriptions. Therefore, whilst a ripe pepper is described as kↄkↄↄ, ripe mangos, ripe oranges, glittering gold, burning coal, sunny skies, flames, the skin of a ‘white man’, etc. are all kↄkↄↄ as well. In the Akan colour scheme therefore, colours that could be placed analogous to kↄkↄↄ include red, orange, pink, wine and the like.
Fitaa/fufuw is white, light, plain, spotless, clean, neat, pure, holy, untainted and incorrupt. Moreover, fitaa/fufuw is always associated with cleanliness, purity, victory and spirituality. It denotates white coruscating brightness, visual spotlessness and stainlessness. No matter where it is spotted, the associated psychological and spiritual experience comes naturally, and this is inert in almost every Akan.
Another dimension of fitaa/fufuw is its direct association with light especially when it reflects bright objects to shine. When something shines or sparkles, or hyerɛn as it would be said in Akan, it is associated with brightness and for that matter, white. In this regard, a spark that would be lighted by any colour to give the feeling of brightness will be described as fitaa. The reason is that the psychological feeling of brightness invoked by the sensation is more important than its sensation on the eye.
One does not need to understand the word tuntum to be able to link its semantic association with weight and heaviness. Tuntum connotes darkness and visual weight, and technically expressed, all the cool colours on the colour wheel fall within the brackets of colours in this category. Tuntum connotes darkness, gloom and heaviness. To the Akan, tuntum does not only stand for black, but absence of lightness, brightness, shine, glow, gaiety, happiness and sparkle. This is not to say that tuntum in Akan spells doom. Just as with all the other colours, the reason behind its application is what matters most to the Akan. For instance, the weight and compactness of tuntum also represents unmatched strength and solidity. Hence, expressions such as black power, black beauty, black star and black magic connote the highest levels or degrees attainable in the referent condition. So, whereas tuntum or dark colours are used in the expression of gloomy and moody conditions or situations, they are also considered for situations that require seriousness, formality, deep concentration, calmness, maturity, strength and energy. Again, in its association with darkness and stillness of dark night, tuntum also connotes calmness, coolness, rest, quietness and serenity.
The Akan Colour Chart: Minimal Dimensions of the Akan Colour Scheme
The following charts present attempts at putting into perspective the minimal dimensions of the Akan colour scheme. As mentioned earlier, everything that qualifies to be described as colour from the Akan point of view can be located within three broad colour spectra—tuntum (dark), fitaa (white) and kↄkↄↄ/memen (glow, spark, shine), and they physically manifest in the shades and tints of black, white and red. Right from this point, it is clear that colour among the Akan is perceived more with feelings than just the light sensation it emits. Therefore, the colours that fall under these themes are believed to share more physiological, psychological and spiritual feelings than aesthetical feelings (even though that is an integral part). In the examples of natural colours associated with colour names in the tables below therefore, the ripeness of pepper, mango, orange and tomatoes are all described as kↄↄ, establishing the overall feeling they evoke. The greenness of a virgin forest, the darkness of rain clouds, the depth of the deep blue seas and the blackness of charcoal are all tumm or tuntum (dark) because of their command of psychological heaviness. The bright skies, the white flower, cotton and the grey hair are all fitaa because they share similar ambience and invoke the same feeling of brightness. It should also be noted that apart from tuntum (black, dark), fufuw/fitaa (white, bright) and kↄkↄↄ/memen (red, glow, spark, shine), none of the associated colours has a name in Akan. What they have, at best, could be discussed as descriptions. In other words, colours of objects are rather described than named.
The following charts illustrate colour from the perspective of the participants in this study, as illustrated by the author:
Figure 1: Akan colour category Tuntum and its natural colour associations
Figure 2: Akan colour category Fitaa/Fufuw and its natural colour associations
Figure 3: Akan colour category Kↄkↄↄ/Memen and its natural colour associations
From the above charts, the Akan colour reference scheme above was derived.
Implications for design and design education
Cultural understanding of colour from Akan perspectives will direct how colours could be appropriately grouped under the appropriate themes to enhance effective appreciation of design as well as effective communication. It would also ensure that the role of language and cultural interpretation of colour is given due recognition in the design education process.
- deGraft-Yankson, Patrique (2020), ‘Of the Akan people: Colour and design education in Ghana’, International Journal of Education Through Art, 16:3, pp. 399–416, doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/eta_00041_1
published November 2020