The Rainbow in Translation

A rose will be a rose by any name, but would it be different in any language? We all have eyes and we see things as they are, but with different aspects. Different languages categorize colors differently, that influences the way of people that are from different cultures and perceive the color.

Obviously, you want to know more. Some facts about colors in different languages and the affect of these languages on the perception are described here.

English has 11 basic words for colors

We all are aware of that color wheels when we were a child. The wheel demonstrates the division of colors classification. English has 11 words for colors: white, black, green, red, blue, yellow, pink, blue, brown, gray, purple and orange.

But a color wheel if made in any other language would be a bit different. Some languages use more words, while others have few.

Some languages have twelve basic color words

Russian and Greek are the examples where they see dark blue and light blue as different colors. On the other hand, English-speaking divides pink and red. Languages like Turkish and Irish differentiate red color shades.

The Piraha (Language) has 2 basic colors

There is a language named “Piraha” that differentiates between “light” and “dark” only. To describe the color of an object in detail, the language would describe it as “like” or something else.

There are other languages having few basic colors. These also include Himba Language. The researchers of University of Essex described that Himba has only four basic terms they use for colors:

  • Zuzu refers to dark shades of red, blue, purple, and green
  • Vapa refers to white and few shades of yellow
  • Buru includes shades of blue and green
  • Dambu refers to other shades of red, brown and green

There are some other sources that say they have five basic terms and also include the term “serandu” for some shades of orange, red and pink.

Some languages do not differentiate between blue and green

Japanese use “midori” and “guriin” words for green and “aoi” for blue color. Sometimes they treat green as another shade of blue and do not differentiate between the two.

In Shakespeare’s time, pink was unknown

Pink is the most basic color term in the English language. The “pink” was described as a color term from 1733, century after the death of Shakespeare. Originally pink was used for the word “dianthus” (a type of flower).

Color words changes over time

The answer to the question is not predictable that why different cultures classify the spectrum into separate categories. But the categories they used are not fixed. Color words can evolve with time like other words.

For example, according to Australian ; the languages can surely add new terms in it over time, and they may also lose them accordingly.

The Japanese language not only categorizes green as a shade of blue, but the words used for green in Japanese are also fairly recent. “Guriin” word came from Dutch. “Midori” is as old as found in 1000 A.D.

The study of Empirical Zeal shows that the Japanese started to differentiate between “aio” and “Midori” as a result of the introduction to Western culture. Formerly, there were crayons boxes that were imported in 1917. The Japanese schools started to teach children to separate green and blue in order to meet educational standards of Allied.

About the author
Winston Simon
Winston Simon, the founder of the Translation Blog, holds a Bachelor of Science (BS) from Auburn University. Fluent in multiple languages, including Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, German, and Japanese, Winston has had a lifelong passion for learning languages from around the globe

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