In the distance between green and blue, lies an entire linguistic history.
By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator
The grass is always greener on the other side. Or, in some languages, it could also be “the grass is always bluer on the other side.”
It’s amazing how humans have invented so many words to describe colours surrounding us. Even though no two flowers are exactly of the same colour, we somehow were able to create a general name for each part of the spectrum and categorize a number of things we see under one. It is strange to think about the fact that we humans appeared to have unanimously agreed on the naming of some of the most fundamental colours, such as red, black, and white.
Although, there are a few exceptions. Among these colours, the most well-known one is called blue. In many languages, the colour blue shares the same vocabulary as green; and though visually they are very different, the two colours on the rainbow are perceived as one conception. When referring to the actual colours, speakers of that language would either put a noun before the colour (e.g. sky blue, grass green, etc.), or be accustomed to interpreting the word basing on its context.
Prior to the influence of Europe, every continent had different perceptions of colours. To name a few: “青” in ancient Chinese and Japanese, “xanh” in Vietnamese, “푸르다” in Korean, “tȟó”in Lakota, “yax” in Yukatek Mayan, “shīn” in Pashto and “kok” in Kyrgyz can all represent both colour blue and green. Blue is divided into two colors in some Slavic languages: light blue and dark blue. Blue is associated with grey and black in several other languages, whereas green represents a distinct shade of yellow.
Why do different languages name colours differently? According to a study conducted in mid-last century, humans’ knowledge about colours of the nature evolved following a specific order. At first, there was only the light-dark distinction, where everything was literally black and white; then red, the colour of blood and fire, came into the conversation. Furthermore, as mega-categories of colours broke up, distinct colours that were more relevant to people’s lives were named, such as yellow. Colours that sit between two distinct colours and are more vaguely defined were named even later, such as orange and pink.
While humans’ knowledge of visible light expanded, languages evolved at the same time. In today’s English, the colour orange is a word borrowed from the name of a fruit. In Swedish, the color orange is still referred to as “fire yellow (brandgul)”. And “grue,” which stands for green-blue, came very late in this evolvement, and has persisted in its existence for thousands of years to date.
As languages define colours, they also impact how each culture views and utilizes those colours differently. Some cultures value darker colours more than white, and some prefer muted over bright. Many languages even have their own exclusive categories of colours that are uncommon in the English context, such as 小豆色 / あずきいろ (colour of red mung bean, similar to maroon) in Japanese, and 月白 (“moon white,” a muted pale blue) in Chinese. From the naming of colours to the choice of colour in traditional clothing, traditional patterns, architecture, decor and art, these vocabularies form a culture’s colour palette, and reflect a nation’s aesthetics and personality.
More interestingly, the discovery of new colours is still an ongoing quest. Thanks to the fast fashion and cosmetics industry, this lexicon of colours is ever expanding. From “grue,” blue and green; to teal, turquoise, cyan, lime and periwinkle; to “mint,” “lagoon” and “sea foam,” it’s almost an adventure to see to where this exploration leads, and to figure out our language’s full potential.