A color by any other name

Those of us who are sighted tend to take the colors we see for granted. The sky (at least on a sunny day) is blue, while the grass (when lush and healthy) is green. Yet these very distinctions are, to some degree, arbitrary, and vary between languages and cultures. It appears that every language has a color scheme with between two (such as Burarra, an aboriginal language spoken in Australia that divides all colors into shades of two colors that very roughly mean "light" and "dark") and twelve basic color terms (with other color terms in each language being variants of these terms), yet each language divides and assigns these colors in its own way.

Celtic languages have definitions of "blue" and "green" that are surprisingly different from those assigned in English. In Middle Irish and Old Irish, "glas" encompassed green, blue, and some shades of gray. In Modern Welsh, "gwyrdd" refers to "green,' while "glas" generally means "blue." However, "glas" can also refer to the color of grass, the color of the sea, and the color of silver, suggesting that, although the distinction between blue and green exists, the dividing point is different between Welsh and English. Increasingly, though, and probably due to the considerable influence of English in the British Isles, Welsh appears to be tending toward the eleven-color color scheme used in English, adopting "llwyd' for gray in addition to "gwyrdd" and "glas."

Other languages, such as Lakota (spoken by the Sioux), represent blue and green as shades of one color, and such languages. Yet some languages outdo English (which, admittedly, has terms such as "indigo" and "azure," but these are often considered to be shades of blue, although indigo is sometimes classified as a separate color in the spectrum) and and make further distinctions between blue and green. Greek, for instance, has six words for varying shades of blue, one word for turquoise, and four words for varying shades of green. Italian has two words for light blue, "azzurro" and "celeste," as opposed to "blu" which means "blue." More significantly, "azzurro" is generally not considered to be a shade of "blu," but an entirely separate color. Some Slavic languages, as well as Romanian, also treat light blue and blue as separate colors. Kazakh has one color ("kök") for natural green objects and another color ("jasâl") for human-made green objects. Interestingly, "kök" also refers to the color of the sky and of the sea. Japanese and Mandarin also have different color boundaries for blue and green.

Similar differing semantic fields are found for other colors. Pink and red are considered to be separate colors in English, yet shades of the same color in Mandarin. A number of African languages see blue and black as shades of the same color, as did Old Norse (and Swedish until the early 20th century).

As we can see from the examples of Welsh and Swedish, color divisions can change in a single language over time. In English, "orange" became established as a separate color as late as in the early-mid 20th century. Prior to this date it was often called "yellow-red" on artists' palettes. "Pink" and "purple" are also examples of descriptive (subordinate shades that have, respectively developed into abstract colors in their own right.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Sam Dean said...

Some other culturally subjective color examples that come up a lot:

In a lot of Old English lit (Beowulf, notably, but it's pretty consistent), brown seems to mean something more like the way something shines than the color of something, and ditto with gray, and the metallic colors - more lustre than color, even though the word is almost the same as the modern "brown".

All the weirdness of ancient greek color stuff, with theories about it spanning from something like the Old English lustre theory to the Ancient Greeks having physically different retinas, brains, etc, through some weird evolution foibles.
good article on the last bit:

Silas said...

Hey Sam-

Thanks a lot for reading and for your post. That is interesting about the changing perceptions of brown and gray in such works as "Beowulf." I wonder whether these colors were actually seen differently (as ways of shining rather than as true colors in their own right) by everyday individuals at the time or whether they were being used in this way in order to enhance the "poetic feel" of the works. In any event, there has likely been some shift, since brown and gray would, in most cases, likely not be seen nowadays as as embodying brilliance.

I hadn't heard the theory about Ancient Greeks possibly having different retinas or brains. This could perhaps explain the differences in color perception, but I think that if this were the case, the implications for what we know (or really don't know) about Ancient Greek civilization would stretch far beyond color concepts.

Thanks again for posting!