Alan S. Kennedy's Color/Language Project

LINGUISTIC FACTS ABOUT COLOR

We tend to think of colors as ideas which all humans agree on – grass is green, flames are orange, the sky is light blue – even if different languages have different names for these colors.

As English speakers, we also tend to think of color names in terms of the "basic" ones and the more specific, secondary ones (e.g. turquoise, ochre). Think of the words that are taught to young children for color. A quick look at baby books shows that English generally has 11 basic color words:

Many people are surprised to learn, therefore, that different languages do not consider the basic colors to be the same. Some New Guinea Highland languages, for example, still have terms only for black and white (perhaps better translated as "dark" and "light"). Hanuno'o language, spoken in the Philippines, has only four basic color words: black, white, red and green. Pirahã language, spoken by an Amazonian tribe, is said to have no fixed words for colors. According to linguist Dan Everett, if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, "This looks like blood".

Looking at the chart below: Berlin & Kay's landmark study (1969) of 98 languages showed that if a language has a name for a color in a higher-numbered column it always has a name for the ones to the left (i.e. if a language has only 2 color words they will always be white and black; if it has 5 they will always be white, black, red, green and yellow, etc.).

Studies done since Berlin & Kay have continued to validate the existence of this tendency up to blue (evidence for the rest of the sequence is less consistent), and it remains a fascinating finding. This research has inevitably led some linguists to surmise that the experience of seeing color may be relative for a person and may be influenced by his or her language. British psychologist W.H.R. Rivers conducted experiments in the 1890's with Pacific Islanders (who used their word for "black" to describe the sky) which demonstrated that people can see the difference between all imaginable shades of color, even if names for them are not in their language. Other studies have shown, however, that people can remember and sort colored objects more easily if their language has a name for that color. A recent study by Franklin, Drivonikou and Bevis (2008) suggests that a perception of color which is unfiltered by the language that we speak, i.e. the one we are born with, gives way to one that is more influenced by our language as we become adults. Here are some specific examples of how different colors are dealt with in various languages:

  1. Latin originally lacked a generic color word for "gray" and "brown" and had to borrow its words from Germanic language sources.
  2. Classical Greek is said to not have had different names for blue and black.
  3. Biblical Hebrew had no word for blue.
  4. Navajo has one word for both grey and brown and one for blue and green. It has two for black, however, distinguishing the color of "coal" from that of "darkness".
  1. Russian, Italian, and Greek  have different basic words for darker and lighter shades of blue. Russian has голубой and синий; Italian has azzuro and blu; Greek has γαλάζιο and

             μπλ.

  1. Hungarian has two different basic red words – bordó (darker reds) and piros (lighter reds.)
  2. Spanish has several words which correspond with the basic English word for “brown”: brown skin and brown sugar are moreno; brown hair is castaño; brown bears are pardo, but other brown animals are marrón, as are eyes, cars, paint and clothing - although many Latin American speakers would use the word café for a basic brown. As a result, Spanish books for children and foreign learners disagree about the “basic” word for this color.    
  3. Shona language (a Bantu language from Southern Africa) has no one word for our "green". concept; they have one word for yellowish-green, and a different word for bluish-green.
  4. Hindi has no standard word for the color "gray". However, lists for child or foreigner Hindi language learning include "saffron" [केसर] as a basic color.
  5. In Gaelic glas can mean both “grey” and “green”– glasbheinn is “green mountain”; glais-fheur is “green grass” BUT glaschiabh means “grey hairs” and glasgheadh is “grey goose”.
  6. In Welsh language (which is in a different language family from English), the word for "blue" traditionally covers not only what English speakers would call blue but also parts of green and grey as well (although in contemporary Welsh the words have come to correspond more with English).

Welsh language:

Precise concept in English:

gwyrdd

green which is not blue-ish

glas

blue;

greenish-blue;

grayish-blue

llwyd

gray which is not blue-ish

  1. Bilingual speakers of English and Kwakwa'la (a native language of Vancouver Island in Canada) demonstrated that they use the words "yellow" and "green" when speaking English but refer to the catch-all term ibenxa for both colors when speaking Kwakwa'la.
  2. The aforementioned Spanish word pardo means “brown” when describing a bear, but “grayish and overcast” when describing weather. In fact, some dictionaries describe the word as meaning “gray-brown”, which itself is interesting since English does not have a basic word for this.
  3. Serbo-Croatian speakers say “blue hair” (plava kosa) for blond hair, even though they have words for yellow and golden. Italian speakers call the egg yolk rosso d’uovo (“red of the egg”.) This may seem odd to us, until we remember that a “white redhead drinking white wine” actually has very pale pinkish-orange skin, orange hair, and a glass of light yellow liquid.
  4. Some languages have color verbs, e.g. Lakota (a Native American language of the Sioux family). As an example, the verb gigí means "to be rusty brown", and skaská means "to be white".

"GRUE"

  1. Many languages are like Navajo in that they do not have separate terms for blue and green, instead using one term for both. Linguists sometimes use the term grue to describe such words. This refers not only to some lesser- known languages (e.g. Tzeltal, spoken in Mexico, and Tarahumara, spoken in India) but to some well-known ones as well. In fact, when you consider that most of the 5-6,000 or so languages which exist today are spoken by 2,000 or fewer people, we can say that most languages are grue languages.
  2. In Vietnamese, both tree leaves and the sky are described by the color word xanh.
  3. In Thai, the word เขียว means green, but is also used to describe the sky.
  4. In both Japanese and Korean, the distinction between green and blue is not always made. For example, in both, a green traffic light can be called the "blue" light.
  5. In Gaelic, gorm means “blue” but is also sometimes used to describe grass - as in feur gorm – “green grass”.

It should be pointed out that popular/everyday concepts of "basic" color are often different from scientific ones, no matter what language is being discussed. For example, English speakers use the mnemonic device "Roy G. Biv" to memorize the sequence of colors in a spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) – but few English speakers would call indigo a "basic" color. Incidentally, English is not the only language with such a mnemonic device. Russian, for example, has this one:

Notes:

  1. "Gray" is also spelled "grey", which is sometimes referred to as a British spelling, although that distinction seems to be on the wane. Nowadays you will hear that it is simply spelled both ways.
  2. The "basic" word in English for purple color is sometimes "violet".
  3. Let's leave aside for the purposes of this analysis that "black" and "white" may not, strictly/scientifically speaking, be "colors".

Sources:

  1. Jean Aitchison “Linguistics” (2003)
  2. Jag Bhalla "I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World" (2009)
  3. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay "Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution" (1969)
  4. David Crystal "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" (1987)
  5. Guy Deutscher "Through the Language Glass” (2010)
  6. Anna Franklin et. al. Lateralization of categorical perception of color changes with color term acquisition. PNAS, 105, 18221-18225.
  7. Victoria A. Fromkin "Linguistics" (2000)
  8. Aneta Pavlenko, Bilingualism and Thought (Chapter 21) from "Handbook of Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Approaches" (2005). Judith F. Kroll & Annette M.B. De Groot, eds.
  9. Gill Philip Connotative Meaning in English and Italian Colour-Word Metaphors from Metaphorik, 2006 (10).
  10. Gill Philip “Coloring Meaning” (2011)
  11. Steven Pinker "The Language Instinct" - “P.S.” revised edition  (1994)

COLOR AND CULTURE

Cultural color associations can differ widely. Western brides consider a white dress to be traditional, and in Anglo-American culture, wearing "something blue" is equally traditional. In some Asia/Pacific countries, however, it is customary for brides to wear red. We wear black to funerals; in India it is common to wear white. In Western cultures, purple is often associated with royalty – an association which does not exist in other places. Christians think of heaven as white or blue – in the Koran, the term for "greenness" is found in several verses to describe the state of the inhabitants of paradise. For the Chinese, the color red is strongly associated with good luck, an association most Westerners don't have. In traditional Cherokee culture, colors are associated with the four directions: blue (north), white (south), red (east) and west (black).

Flag colors often symbolize countries, to stronger or lesser degrees. "Red, white and blue", as a combo, signals "America" to Americans, but not necessarily to others. Colors can also signify religious identity. In UK cities where Catholic and Protestants have a history of conflict, the use of green (Catholicism) or Orange (Protestantism) are strongly symbolic of opposing socio-religious groups. Gang colors, football team colors, and school colors can also be highly salient in different societies.  

COLOR IDIOMS

It follows, then, that colors are used in very different ways in different color idioms across languages. Let's just take green as an example. In English alone, "he is green" can mean, depending on the context: 1. He is inexperienced 2. He is envious 3. He is environmentally aware. However, green has other associations in other languages such as fear (French), anger (Thai, Greek, Italian), boredom (Russian), off-color sexual content (Spanish), harassment (Turkish), infidelity (Mandarin Chinese),  the sky (Arabic), and youth (Swahili).

A comprehensive list of such color idioms used in English and many other languages has been compiled. The list is intended to collect true idioms using color terms (so not “gold rush” or “apples and oranges”), with figurative meanings (so not collocations e.g. “robin’s egg blue”, “red sky at night”; not poems e.g. “my love is like a red, red rose”; and not proper names e.g. “Deep Purple”). Often idioms can take different forms (“They rolled out the red carpet”/”We got the red-carpet treatment”), in which case we endeavor to have just one of the versions on there, with the core words.

The list operates as a wiki, so we rely on speakers of the different languages to both add to the list and correct inaccuracies!

Find hundreds of international color idioms here: Color Idioms in Different Languages.

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