The language of colors

One of our favorite “buzzworthy” words so far this year is the Japanese mizu. Translating as “water,” mizu isn’t just a shade of blue but a light blue its own color, as GOOD puts it. That got us wondering about other colorful untranslatables.

Kind of blues

What color is this?


Pink, right? Not “light red” (and certainly not Millennial Pink). Just as English speakers automatically differentiate between pink and red, speakers of other languages do the same for what we call light blue and dark blue. (In Chinese, by the way, pink, fěn hóng or “powder red,” is considered a shade of red.)

Modern Hebrew has Tchelet for light blue and Kachol for dark. Turkish considers navy blue, or lacivert, separate from light blue, what they call mavi, with lacivert coming from the Persian word for “lapis lazuli” and mavi coming from the Arabic word for “water.” Russian speakers do the same with light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy).

Now you might think that regardless of color words, we must all perceive color the same way, right? Researchers at MIT would say wrong. A study from 2007 found that native Russian speakers were quicker to distinguish light from dark blues than native English speakers.

No blues

It might be hard to imagine a world without blue. It’s the favorite color of the majority of Americans (at least according to a few different surveys). Crayola has about 35 shades of it (not including their newest one which you can help name). Then there’s that damned dress.

But some ancient cultures may not have had the color, or at least didn’t make the distinction from others. Business Insider (by way of Science Alert) says several ancient texts don’t contain the word “blue.” For instance, “in the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as ‘wine-dark’ and other strange hues, but he never uses the word ‘blue’.” A philologist analyzed “ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew texts, to find no mention of the word blue.” The Egyptians, the only culture at the time to make blue dyes, seem to be the first to have a word for that particular hue.

It’s not easy being blue/green

Some modern languages also don’t make the distinction between blue and green. Pashto, a language in Iran, uses the same word, shīn. To make the distinction, a Pashto speaker might say “shīn like the sky” or “shīn like the grass.” Vietnamese is similar, using xanh for both and specifying “like the sky” or “like the leaves.”

The Yukatek Maya language uses yax while the Yebamasa of the Rio Piraparana region in Colombia say sumese. Bantu languages Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana also use the same word for both colors. Zulu and Xhosa employ the suffix -luhlaza while Tswana uses tala.

Just a few hues

The Himba people of Namibia not only call blue and green by the same name, they have only four color terms total (other languages have 11 or 12). Buru refers to particular shades of green and blue; dambu to red, brown, and other shades of green; zuzu to dark shades of blue, red, green, and purple; and vapa to white and some shades of yellow.

So if having two different words for light and dark blue affects native Russian speakers’ perception of color, how does having fewer color words affect Himba people’s perception? Jules Davidoff of Goldsmiths University of London conducted a study with some Himba members and found they had a difficult time distinguishing blue from green. However, they were able to detect very subtle differences between shades of green.

Red-green, you’re being impossible

Then there are what are called impossible or forbidden colors — that is, colors the human eye can’t see.

As How Stuff Works explains it, color-sensing cells called cones are what make us able to see certain colors. Other cells called opponent neurons process electrical signals from the cones. The two types of opponent neurons — red-green and blue-yellow — signal, respectively, either red or green and either blue or yellow, but not both. Which is why the human eye can’t detect blue-yellow or red-green. (Keep in mind blue-yellow and red-green are colors on their own, not a mixture of two.)

However, some experiments have shown it’s possible to see impossible hues. You can even train yourself to see them.

Colors of invention

Now how about those colors that only exist in fictional worlds? As you can imagine, there are a lot. Here are a few of our favorites.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, hooloovoo is highly intelligent, sentient shade of blue. The Doctor of Doctor Who mentions seeing one in the episode, The Rings of Akhaten: “There go some Panbabylonians. A Lugal-Irra-Kush. Some Lucanians. A Hooloovoo.”

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, octarine, a kind of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple, is the color of magic. Also referred to as the eighth color (in addition to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), it can only be seen by cats and wizards. The prefix octa– means eight while the suffix –ine means “of or relating to.”

In The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, fuligin is a color that’s described as “darker than black” and “the color of soot.” The term fuligin might come from fūlīgō, the Latin word for soot. Real-life blacker than black colors include super black, which NASA developed to absorb light across multiple wavelength bands, and Vantablack, a kind of super black material which absorbs “all but 0.035 percent of visible light.”

What are some of your favorite color words?

One thought on “The language of colors

  1. David Lindsey’s book A Voyage to Arcturus, set on the fictional planet Tormance, which orbits the (fictional) two suns of Arcturus, introduces the idea that one sun provides only the colors known on Earth, whereas the other sun provides blue plus two additional primary colors, ulfire and jale, and their compounds. The narrator comments, “The sense impressions caused in Maskull by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.”

    Of course it is our eyes, not the Sun, that dictate how many primary colors there are and how we see them.

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