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blue and green (NYT article)
Thread poster: Kevin Pfeiffer

Kevin Pfeiffer  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 11:01
Member (2004)
German to English
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Apr 23, 2008

From a recent New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/22/science/22lang.html):

"The traditional subject of the tug of war over language and perception is color. Because languages divide the spectrum differently, researchers have asked whether language affected how people see color. English, for example, distinguishes blue from green. Most other languages do not make that distinction. Is it possible that only English speakers really see those colors as different?"

English does, but also German and Russian (I'm told). What are some languages that do not distinguish between blue and green?

-K


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Evangelia Mouma  Identity Verified
Greece
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How interesting! Apr 23, 2008

Very interesting subject!
In Greek, we have words for blue and green and several words that distinguish the different hues of these colours - we have words for light blue (two words defining light blue, in fact!) and navy blue etc. Actually, there is a mechanism by which we can add a specific ending to a word and define any colour we like.

But let's see if there are languages which do not have words for blue and green, or which cannot form such words if necessary.

E.


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tpu55
German to English
Languages that do not distinguish blue from green Apr 23, 2008

Hello Kevin,

Chinese has a classical word 靑 qing (1st tone) that means 'blue-green', though modern Mandarin distinguishes 綠 lü(4) 'green' from 藍 lan(2) 'blue'.

The Japanese use that first character 靑 for their native word "ao"; though they call green "midori", the green traffic light (which seems to me to be the same color there as elsewhere) falls for them under the category 'blue-green', "ao".

-tpu55


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
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Russian Apr 23, 2008

Russian not only distinguishes blue from green, it has two words for blue: голубой for pale blue and синий for dark blue.

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Jocelyne S  Identity Verified
France
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A bit of an overstatement? Apr 23, 2008

I think that it might be somewhat of an overstatement to say that *most* other languages do not make a distinction between blue and green. Although not an expert on the subject, I would venture that most active European languages do indeed have names for blue and green; I cannot speak for other, non-European languages as I don't have any grasp of these.

Just last weekend, however, I was talking with a friend who explained that Breton has only one word for blue and grey (she unfortunately did not mention whether there is a separate word for green).

I would indeed be interested to hear about languages which don't make the distinction and how, for example, one would distinguish between the colour of the sky on a sunny day and the colour of grass.

Best,
Jocelyne


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Victor Dewsbery  Identity Verified
Germany
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German to English
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Distinguishing shades of colour Apr 23, 2008

I am not aware of any main colours that are given a name in one language and completely missing from another. But the dividing line between scales of colours may differ from one language community to another.

I observed this with our first car. My wife (German) described the colour as green, but for me (UK English) it was yellow (not very different from the background colour I see on the page of this forum). I could accept that it was a "greenish yellow", but a yellow none the less, and I just couldn't bring myself to "see" it as green (and my wife said the same in reverse).

I would guess that the borderline between many pairs of colours would be "seen" differently in other cases, too. For example, is orange a shade of yellow or a shade of red? In theory, we would all say "it depends", but in practice we would probably draw the line at different shades, depending on our socialisation, and our language of origin is probably a major factor here.

I wonder if anyone has done a linguistics or psychology research project in this area?


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aruna yallapragada  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:31
Member (2008)
German to English
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Describing the colour Apr 23, 2008

I wouldn't go as much and say the words don't exist in any language. But I would say there are different ways of describing the colour. In my mothertongue Telugu, we tend to associate the colour with the most common object and describe it as - the colour of ash, the colour of an orange, the colour of a leaf, the colour of wheat etc. This perhaps deviates from the topic, but I found the question interesting.

Aruna


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:01
Member (2006)
French to English
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No word for "blue" in ancient Greek? Apr 23, 2008

Evangelia Mouma wrote:

Very interesting subject!
In Greek, we have words for blue and green and several words that distinguish the different hues of these colours - we have words for light blue (two words defining light blue, in fact!) and navy blue etc. Actually, there is a mechanism by which we can add a specific ending to a word and define any colour we like.

But let's see if there are languages which do not have words for blue and green, or which cannot form such words if necessary.

E.

I have occasionally seen (or heard) in books or programmes on "interesting facts" (e.g. Stephen Fry on "QI") that the ancient Greeks had no word for "blue" and described the sky as black. Is that true?
The European languages I know certainly do have different words for "green" and "blue".
However, people (my mother and I, for example) often disagree about whether a greenish-blue (or blueish-green) is green or blue. "Opposite the blue garage door" "You mean the green garage door?" "No, it's blue", and so on.
Enjoying a green spring,
Jenny


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:01
French to English
Research has been done Apr 23, 2008

Victor Dewsbery wrote:

I wonder if anyone has done a linguistics or psychology research project in this area?


Yes, they have, I read a book years and years ago. Basically, they wander around with a big old Dulux paint chart and say, "OK, which of these are red/green/blue?" etc.

If a language has only three words for colours (oh yes, apparently so!), then the archetypal purest form of these colours are always what we would call black, white and red. That much I do remember.

Ah, here's what I was looking for, roughly - I guess I may have read Berlin & Kay, or a layman's guide/summary book of some kind.

http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=906954


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Claire Cox
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:01
French to English
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Same here Apr 23, 2008

Jenny Forbes wrote:

[However, people (my mother and I, for example) often disagree about whether a greenish-blue (or blueish-green) is green or blue. "Opposite the blue garage door" "You mean the green garage door?" "No, it's blue", and so on.



Same here, Jenny - my mother and I have different blue/green perceptions too - usually when it's those turquoise-y shades. Strange though, as you'd think your mother would be the one person you'd be bound to agree with ....


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gfe
Local time: 11:01
English to Italian
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Eco says... Apr 23, 2008

For those who can read Italian, our national translation pundit Umberto Eco has several head-spinning pages in "Dire quasi la stessa cosa" (that may or may not be the same as "Experiences in translation"). He comes close to convincing you that some languages have _no_ color terms, in the sense we know.

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casey
United States
Local time: 05:01
Member
Japanese to English
What color is the sky? What color is the grass? Apr 23, 2008

That seems like a very odd statement to make. Japanese people do, indeed, call the color on their traffic lights "blue," but if you ask them what color the sky is they will tell you ao (blue), and if you ask them what color the grass is, they'll tell you midori (green). I'd be interested in seeing if the writers could actually show examples of languages where the color of the sky and the color of the grass are actually described by the same word.

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Evangelia Mouma  Identity Verified
Greece
Local time: 10:01
English to Greek
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I do not know, Jenny Apr 23, 2008

Jenny Forbes wrote:

I have occasionally seen (or heard) in books or programmes on "interesting facts" (e.g. Stephen Fry on "QI") that the ancient Greeks had no word for "blue" and described the sky as black. Is that true?



I will have to study
What I know for sure is that there was a word for dark light blue -which we also use today- in Mycaenes. And that the murals in Knossos have a vivid blue colour and that the metope of Parthenon, as well as many other constructions and statues, were colourful.


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Jennifer Hejtmankova  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 11:01
Member (2007)
Czech to English
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Reminds me of a childhood musing... Apr 23, 2008

I remember wondering as a child (and even as a child-like adult ) whether we all see the colors the same way...meaning, is the color I call blue the same as the color you call blue, or is it what you call orange? And then of course my mind would wander off on a journey of what the world would look like all different colored (but still called the same color names....).

And another thing - females seem to differentiate between different colors more easily than males. I used to joke with my ex-boyfriend that to him, the world was a box of 8 Crayolas, and to me it was a box of 64 Crayolas (wax crayons, for those unfamiliar with the brand name).

At any rate, to keep this on topic, Czech has completely different words for blue and green.


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Joan Berglund  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:01
Member (2008)
French to English
we don't all see color the same way Apr 23, 2008

Color perception is based on the relative amounts of light absorbed by red, gren and blue pigments in the cones. Even among people in the "normal color vision range" there will be some disagreements (just dug out my old neuroscience textbook). Genes responsible for red and green pigments are on the X chromosome, so men are more prone to color-blindness, or to being "anomalous trichomats", not color-blind per se, but a seing colors little different than "normal trichomats". Now, could there be differences tied to ethnicity as well?

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