Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

First Advisor

Kira Hall

Second Advisor

Laura Michaelis

Third Advisor

Bhuvana Narasimhan


This paper critically examines the elusive concept of a pure linguistic form and how attempts to discover and analyze such a form have come to underscore many of the contentious and problematic areas within language description research. I argue that this pure form of a language is an imagined, idealistic form exclusive of sociocultural interactions and influences that leads us to incomplete and misleading interpretations of language data. I first discuss the ways in which a search for purity has manifested itself in multiple domains of linguistic research, from language revitalization projects seeking to reinvigorate an “ancestral code” (Woodbury 2005), to documentary linguists calling for inclusive ways to document variation (Meyerhoff 2017), and universalists filtering color term data to their simplest cross-linguistic commonalities (Berlin & Kay 1991).

After describing the pervasiveness of linguistic purity throughout multiple research domains, I turn to two specific cases of my own color term research to show what can be gained from an analysis that rejects the notion of a pure form and instead embraces the social, cultural, and historical influences on the language as part of the language itself. Examining color terms from both Èdó, a Volta-Niger language spoken in Nigeria, and Moba, a Gur language spoken in Togo, I show how an adherence to pure forms produces a lacking portrayal of the language and its speakers in comparison to the type of holistic description I encourage. I show that, while a reduction and seeming purification of language data can be immensely helpful in discovering universals, these methods are often applied to individual languages resulting in descriptions that fail to account for the history and culture of the language community.