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:
Precise concept in English:
green which is not blue-ish
gray which is not blue-ish
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:
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.
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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