Colour names

According to a study by researchers at Ohio State University, colours tend to be divided into eight main categories: red, green, yellow/orange, blue, purple, brown, pink and grue (green/blue) across many languages. The categories are remarkably consistent, though the boundaries between the different colours vary from language to language, and some languages have fewer words for colours, which are often amalgamations of the main categories.

One distinction made in all languages is the one between ‘cool’ colours, like blues and greens, and ‘warm’ colours, like reds, oranges and yellows. Some languages use a single word to desciber the cool colours, and a different word to describe the warm colours.

An example of a language with different colour boundries to English is Welsh. The Welsh word glas represents a blue/green/grey/silver colour, llwyd is brown/grey colour, coch is a redish-brown, scarlet or crimson colour. The other Celtic languages have similar colour boundries.

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17 Responses to Colour names

  1. Benjamin says:

    I find it quite hard to imagine that some languages can’t distinguish between blue and green: These colors are just sooo different and so common. I can’t understand why there aren’t words for every single shade of brown or grey, but to put green (gras) and blue (sky, sea) together into one word?! Strange.
    On the other hand there are peoples with languages that have words to distinguish ten or more shades of green – they might say the same thing, I did, about English and German…

    By the way, Toki Pona has a nice system to express colors: You have words for yellow, red and blue and have to mix them to express further colors, e.g. orange is either yellow-red or red-yellow; green is yellow-blue…
    With words for light and dark you can further define the color…
    Very efficient; it’s an artificial language though…

  2. Bob says:

    My two sons are both colorblind. My understanding of the genetics of colorblindness is that the genes for preceiving red and green are right next to each other on the chromosome while the gene for perceiving blue is located farther away. So as colorblindness goes, you have red/green (most common) colorblindness or blue (much rarer) because of where a mutation take place (There are a few others, such as no color, but those are also very rare.) If we are genetically coded to percieve red, green and blue (and as I understand it, our eyes are built that way) then it would make sense that language would adapt. Similar to how many Semitic languages have duals (we have two hands!) and most languages use a decimal numbering system (we have 10 fingers!).

  3. Polly says:

    I’ve run into confusion when describing something as either blue/green or orange/yellow/red with people from very different cultures. Those color-names seem to overlap in some languages. I learned that 青 (ao-i) can stand for blue or green in Japanese. But, I’m a newbie so maybe I’m confusing readings with meanings.

    Regardless of the language, I think anyone who wants to buy paint from a modern hardware store will find more colors and names than they ever would have guessed existed. Terms that probably didn’t exist at the turn of the last century.
    Females also tend to be more acquainted with the various colors than males, IN GENERAL. But, individuals vary.

  4. Janis says:

    There’s also a predictable porder in which cultures will add new color terms — say, that a language will not have a term for purple unless they already have a tern for red, that sort of thing. The first terms that a culture always has are black and white — often “dark” and “light.” Then, unsurprisingly, red. Them, green OR blue. Then, the others in a variety of orders; sometimes they come in clumps.

    And it’s hardly that colors can’t be distinguished by people who don’t have those terms, or that they can’t tell the visual difference. Most humans can tell the difference between seafoam green and turquoise, or beige and mauve, but there are lots of Uhmurkins who don’t bother to use those terms much. Women seem to have more color terms than men (which casts serious doubt on the old “men are more visual” belief, but even if a man calls something “sort of dark orange” rather than “pumpkin,” I’m sure he can SEE the difference. It’s just not a difference that he feels merits its own term.

  5. Janis says:

    Oops– wanted to say that I didn’t think you were SAYING that people can’t see the difference between colors. I sort of leaped ahead and addressed a statement that I’ve seen a lot elsewhere, connected to this one, that perception is the same as language, good old Whorf-Sapir. It’s odd how frequently that belief will come up in any casual discussion of language, that what people don’t bother to name, they can’t see. I just springboarded off of your post to leap over there, but I should have noted that. :-)

  6. It is very interesting how different languages perceive color, and just goes to show how language shapes our own perception of things.

    By the way, Tonkawa is one of those languages that doesn’t distinguish between green and blue–kind of odd, but interesting. Sadly, I don’t think there are any native speakers of Tonkawa left, all speak English nowadays.

  7. jdotjdot89 says:

    This is slightly unrelated to the topic, but it’s something I’ve always found fascinating about colors/sight and communication. For example, with people who have always been colorblind–I could TRY to tell you what “red” means, or “blue”, or “brown”, but what would I use to describe it? Other colors, as in “the color of a tree” or “what it would look like if you mixed red and yellow”, and such like that. But, the interesting thing is that this isn’t limited to the disabled–think about any two normal people trying to describe something, one to the other. Joe can tell Bob, “Hey man, the sky is blue,” and Bob will agree, because both of them grew up being told that that color up there in the sky is called “blue”. However, Joe’s “blue” could very well be what Bob considers “yellow” and neither of them would ever know. Every single person’s perception of the world could be radically different–not just in how we think of it, but how we actually SEE it–and no one would ever know.

  8. Paul D says:

    I think the order in which languages acquire colour names have more to do with importance our brains assigns colours. Red seems to be the most important colour and the one people notice first; even nature uses it as a warning colour. Warm and cool colours also affect us in psychologically different ways.

    Students of Japanese sometimes find it confusing that blue (青) sometimes means green too, but we even do that in English with red and orange. Red foxes and red hair are arguably orange in hue, but they’re still called “red”.

  9. parkbench says:

    Yeah, but with Japanese, you call a “green light” 青い.

    I heard once of a language of a tribe on the Amazon that had no words for color, or numbers greater than 2/3. Very interesting.

    Russian also comes with a built-in distinction between light-blue and dark-blue. голубой and синий, respectively. The interesting thing is that they aren’t considered “shades” of each other, really, but rahter different colors.

    According to wiki, Vietnamese has “xanh” for both the sky and leaves; Korean has 푸르다, and apparently, for a long time, blå meant both black and blue in Swedish.

  10. Josh says:

    If Japanese uses “aoi” for blue and green, when do they use “midori”?

  11. Laci the Hun says:

    in Hungarian we distinguish between two kinds of red one is “piros”[piroS] the other one is “vörös” [vørøS]
    you have to say that blood is “vörös” you cannot say it’s “piros” just as well hair must be “vörös” never “piros” and also a fox is “vörös”, just like the Red sea and so on. :) Your lips are “piros” never “vörös” and a cherry is also “piros”
    we can say that generally “vörös” is darker kind of red but not always :)

  12. Simon says:

    Josh – the Japanese tend use ‘aoi’ to describe the colour of natural things (plants, the sea, the sky, etc) which can range in colour from green to blue to grey. ‘Midori’ refers only to a bright green colour.

  13. SamD says:

    Perhaps some sort of parallel between the two words for “blue” in Russian can be drawn with the distinction between red and pink in English. I don’t think too many English-speakers think of them as different shades of the same color.

  14. Chet Grimm says:

    The comments on this topic were interesting. About the need for different words for similar colors. The production of words is dictated by a need. We usually find doohickeys to stand in for the watchamacallit we’ve never run across before. Like Eskimos and snow, I bet desert dwellers have a plethora of words for the colors sand may take on and a relative dearth of greens.

  15. Chet Grimm says:

    One thing that drives me absolutely up the wall is the contention that all languages stem from an original (The “Edenic Language”. As I have stated numerous times in various forums: Bees fly, bats fly, birds fly, Boeings fly. do they have a common ancestor?

  16. Gail Richards says:

    Can anyone tell me what the colour orange was called in English -or – other European languages before the fruit “orange” was introduced to Europe?

  17. Simon says:

    Gail – according to Wikipedia, the Old English word for orange was geoluhread (yellow-red). The first recorded use of orange as a colour name in English was in 1512.

    Ranciato or rancia rosso were the 16th century Italian names for an orange tawney colour.

    There’s information about the origins of the name orange (of the fruit) here.