Colorful Language

Anyone who walks into the paint chip section of a store can tell you that there are many, many different names for yellow. And red. And blue, and so on. From amazing to zealous, there have been countless adjectives and images attached to swatches of colour to get us exciting about differentiation. Sometimes, it seems wrong to use the words they have printed on the colour squares. Word choices don’t always seem to match properly, though a lot of them are named after things found in nature, like goldenrod and its very specific yellow. This got me wondering what it would be like to go to a similar shelf, having a different primary language. And trust me, your mother didn’t teach you to talk with this mouth, either.

Different Names for the Same Thing

Obviously, every language has different words for the things we commonly know as ‘milk,’ ‘brother,’ and ‘hair,’ but an interesting difference comes when we start talking about colour. In English, we have orange and pink, which are really ‘light brown’ and ‘light red’ to many other cultures, no different from the light blue with which we label the sky.

Japanese temple

For example, when studying Japanese, the word I learned for ‘pink’ is actually an adaptation from English of ‘pinku,’ as red and pink are merely seen as different shades in Japanese culture, as well as Chinese, rather than separate colours. Furthermore, in Japanese, the colour name ‘aoi’ describes colours from green to blue, and the hues between. For example, the green light of a traffic light is still ‘aoi,’ and the sky is the same. As cultures became more ‘modern,’ words have been adapted into the cultures, but the need wasn’t always present.

St. Basil's Cathedral

In Russian culture, blue has even further differentiation than our ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue.’ While the have light and dark blue, goluboj and sinij respectively are seen as even further separate colours than just light and dark blue.

Where It All Came From

Words are born seemingly from desperation to communicate something. Needs and wants have come to be even eloquently spoken, and warnings and cautions can be said in a single syllable. When it comes to colour, arguably still born out of a need — the need to express — it should serve as no surprise that learning the basics just wasn’t enough. Almost all theories suggest that the basics are learned first, and then two basic words — light and dark — to distinguish new colours. Put together with a pocket dictionary alone, it’s a whole new world of expression, relation, and colour love.

Is English your first language?

Have you experienced any of these colour differentiations, or lack there of?

Do you have a specific favourite colour?

Author: ruecian