The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.”

—Herman Melville, Billy Budd

Spectral Rhythm. Screen Print by Scott Campbell.

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In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose.

Reconstructing the rainbow. Stephanie, who blogs at 52 Kitchen Adventures, took a heat gun to a crayola set.

In modern Japanese, midori is the word for green, as distinct from blue. This divorce of blue and green was not without its scars. There are clues that remain in the language, that bear witness to this awkward separation. For example, in many languages the word for vegetable is synonymous with green (sabzi in Urdu literally means green-ness, and in English we say ‘eat your greens’). But in Japanese, vegetables are ao-mono, literally blue things. Green apples? They’re blue too. As are the first leaves of spring, if you go by their Japanese name. In English, the term green is sometimes used to describe a novice, someone inexperienced. In Japanese, they’re ao-kusai, literally they ‘smell of blue’. It’s as if the borders that separate colors follow a slightly different route in Japan.

And it’s not just Japanese. There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In Vietnamese the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue.  The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qīng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. In fact, Radiolab had a fascinating recent episode on color where they talked about how there was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!

(Update: Some clarifications here. Thanks, Ani Nguyen, for catching the mistake about Vietnamese. See her comment below about how the same phenomenon holds in Vietnamese. Also, the Chinese word qīng predates modern usage, and it mingles blues with greens. Modern Chinese does indeed distinguish blue from green. Thanks to Jenna Cody for pointing this out, and see her insightful and detailed comment below.)

I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.

Imagine that you had a rainbow-colored piece of paper that smoothly blends from one color to the other. This will be our map of color space. Now just as you would on a real map, we draw boundaries on it. This bit here is pink, that part is orange, and that’s yellow. Here is what such a map might look like to a native English speaker.

A map of color for an English speaker. Results of the XKCD Color Survey. Randall Munroe.

But if you think about it, there’s a real puzzle here. Why should different cultures draw the same boundaries? If we speak different languages with largely independent histories, shouldn’t our ancestors have carved up the visual atlas rather differently?

This question was first addressed by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in the late 1960s. They wanted to know if there are universal, guiding laws that govern how cultures arrive at their color atlas.

And here’s what they found. Languages have differing numbers of color words, ranging from two to about eleven. Yet after looking at 98 different languages, they saw a pattern. It was a pretty radical idea, that there is a certain fixed order in which these color names arise. This was a common path that languages seem to follow, a road towards increasing visual diversity. And they suggested that the road looked like this:

A picture worth many words. The path to a more colorful language, according to Berlin and Kay (1969).

The figure above is really telling a story. What it says is this. If a language has just two color terms, they will be a light and a dark shade – blacks and whites. Add a third color, and it’s going to be red. Add another, and it will be either green or yellow – you need five colors to have both. And when you get to six colors, the green splits into two, and you now have a blue. What we’re seeing here is a deeply trodden road that most languages seem to follow, towards greater visual discernment (92 of their 98 languages seemed to follow this basic route).

Critics of Kay and Berlin said they were reading too much from too little. Some argued that their study was too small, that they surveyed too few people from each language. They also said that study was skewed, as most the languages were from industrialized societies with written scripts. And to top it off, their methods weren’t very quantitative.

To respond to these criticisms, the authors launched what they called the World Color Survey, a project that started collecting data in the late 1970s. This was a survey of 110 languages, all spoken by pre-industrial societies, many that have no written script.

The researchers set out to map the color boundaries for each culture. To do this, they showed people a set of colored tiles in 10 different shades of 40 different hues. In all, 400 tiles of color that represent the building blocks of our visual world.

Crayons for science. How many colors can you name from these tiles? Most English speakers would come up with around 11 (including black and white). This number is a window into the linguistic history of your culture.

They then asked native speakers of these 110 different languages, many from remote tribal cultures, to painstakingly name the color of each tile. After tallying up what people said, they could divide these tiles into islands of color, similar to the map of color from before. Here’s what they learnt.

First, cultures are quite different in how their words paint the world. Take a look at this interactive map. For the 110 cultures, you can see how many basic words they use for colors. To the Dani people who live in the highlands of New Guiniea, objects comes in just two shades. There’s mili for the cooler shades, from blues and greens to black, and mola for the lighter shades, like reds, yellows and white. Some languages have just three basic colors, others have 4, 5, 6, and so on. There’s even a debate as to whether the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon have any specialized color words at all! (If you ask a Pirahã tribe member to label something red, they’ll say that it’s blood-like).

But there’s still a pattern hidden in this diversity. You might be wondering what happened to the cartoon picture of languages. Is there still a main road? Or are there languages that travel off the beaten path? The answer is yes, to both questions.

Goodbye yellow brick road. A more refined picture of how languages name colors.

The picture looks like a mess, but keep in mind that five out of six languages surveyed follow the central route. So here’s the story. You start with a black-and-white world of darks and lights. There are warm colors, and cool colors, but no finer categories. Next, the reds and yellows separate away from white. You can now have a color for fire, or the fiery color of the sunset. There are tribes that have stopped here. Further down, blues and greens break away from black. Forests, skies, and oceans now come of their own in your visual vocabulary. Eventually, these colors separate further. First, red splits from yellow. And finally, blue from green. The forest unmingles from the sky. In the case of Japan, that last transition essentially happened in modern history!

Something eerily powerful is at work here. These cultures have largely independent histories, yet they somehow gravitate towards the same choices for how to slice up the visual cake. So you might ask, is there something special about the colors that they choose?  With the color maps made available from the World Color Survey, researchers were able to take a stab at this question. The work that follows was spearheaded by Terry Regier, in collaboration with Paul Kay and Naveen Khetarpal.

Imagine doing an experiment. Let’s say you want to take the color tiles that represent the visual space, and divide them into four different patches. What’s the best way to do this? Well, you’d like your colors to be quite different from each other, so that people can easily tell them apart. However, you also want each color to contain a whole bunch of very similar shades, so that it’s easily recognizable. The researchers programmed these two conflicting tasks into a computer. They then let the algorithm fight out these conflicting instructions, until it reached some happy compromise. They were on the hunt for an optimal color map, if such a thing even existed.

Here’s the map their computer model came up with. It takes the colored tiles and paints them, in broad strokes, into four different shades. Next to it are some of the real color maps for languages that have four basic color names.

Look similar? That’s the point. The researchers make the case that the islands of color that we carve the world into are, in some sense, the best choice.

Next, here are some examples from cultures with four, five and six different words for colors. The predictions of the computer model are shown next to the data.

It’s a little uncanny how closely well these models seem to match the data. But there are plenty of languages that don’t line up quite as well. Nonetheless, the researchers argue that there is something special about the colors that we choose. If you try to move the borders around, your new colors will actually be less optimal, in a sense that they make precise.

The picture that’s emerging is that colors aren’t quite random slices of the visual pie. They’re somewhat basic categories that humans from different cultures gravitate towards, and must have to do with how the biology of how we see the world. In other words, rainbows have seams. We can distill a rainbow into its basic visual ingredients, and a handful of colors come out. But if you were to ask a dog, a rainbow has fewer ingredients. The result is a little more boring, less rich than the visual spectacle we experience.

But don’t feel too proud. If you were a mantis shrimp, your rainbow would be unimaginably rich, with thousands, maybe tens of thousands of colors that blend together, stretching from deep reds all the way to the ultraviolet. To a mantis shrimp, our visual world is unbearably dull. (Another Radiolab plug: in their episode on Color, they use a choir to convey this idea through sound. A visual spectrum becomes a musical one. It’s one of those little touches that makes this show genius. </fanboy>)


That’s all for part one of this post, on how we gave colors names. In the next part, I’ll talk about some pretty surprising studies that show how giving a color a name can, quite literally, mess with our brains. So stay tuned for the next mind-bending chapter.

Update: Part two is up.

Update (June 11): If you really enjoyed this post, I could use your help. Please consider voting for it in the annual 3QuarksDaily Science Writing Prize. Voting will close on SATURDAY, so get your vote in today. Thanks!

Update: This post received editor’s selections at ScienceSeeker (by Cristy Gelling), ResearchBlogging (by Krystal D’costa), on the Scientific American Incubator Blog (by Khalil Cassimally), and on Bora Zivkovic‘s and Ed Yong‘s picks of the week. 

Update: It’s been an exciting past few weeks. I’m blown away by the overwhelming response to this post. Here’s a manual trackback of links. It was mentioned on the Browser, on the literary blog of the New Yorker, Andrew Sullivan’s blog at the Daily Beast, Erza Klein’s blog on the Washington Post, Maria Popova’s tumblr blog Explore. Its also been tweeted by @BrainPicker and @HariKunzru, among others, and been featured on Hacker NewsRedditMetafilter and Kottke. And to top it off, it won first place in the 3 Quarks Daily annual science writing prize, judged by Sean Carroll.

Update: Thanks to a reader suggestion, I updated the image of the colored tiles to a more accurately colored image from the World Color Survey website.


Regier T, Kay P, & Khetarpal N (2007). Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (4), 1436-41 PMID: 17229840

Kay, P., & Maffi, L. (1999). Color Appearance and the Emergence and Evolution of Basic Color Lexicons American Anthropologist, 101 (4), 743-760 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.4.743

Brent Berlin, & Paul Kay (1991). Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969, Reprint) Center for the Study of Language and Information : Amazon Link

The World Color Survey


Filed under Anthropology, Language, Science

  • Fantastic post! Can’t wait for Part II. You weave magic with words and colors!

  • Som Manikani

    Superb! Thank you.

  • Random thought: is colour blindness in any way related to our definitions of colours? For instance, blue-green colour blindness is quite common but for people with languages that do not differentiate between the two, is colour blindness really colour blindness at all? Along the same line, could some people in our society have colour blindness that we just do not know about/realise?

    I’m not sure I’m making much sense here to be honest!

    • Hi Khalil. I’ll try to address this idea more in the follow up post. I don’t think that lacking a word to differentiate say blue and green can be equated to being colorblind to the difference. What happens when you lack a word is far more subtle, and a little bizarre. But more to follow..

    • Guest

       I would think they are quite different, I could give two colours  the same name, and still be able to distinguish between them (say, the different shades of blue). I think this ability to distinguish between colours would be tested by non-verbal means to diagnose colour-blindness?

      • A more sensible question (the one I was supposed to ask in the first place): if our language does not differentiate between different hues then people who CANNOT differentiate between those hues because of colour-blindness are not even aware they are colour-blind in the first place, are they? A susch, it’d be interesting to see whether there are any studies which differentiate at number of colour-blindness cases in different societies with different languages.
        I’m not sure what those results would actually mean; just flowing with this idea. Hopefully Aatish’s following post will touch this.

        • Thanks for the clarification, Khalil. Your question makes plenty of sense – I don’t know of any such studies. Many people have been bringing up color blindness as a related confounding issue. I suppose that one should check for full color vision when doing these color naming tests, so as to not to conflate the two matters. You might even discover something very interesting about how predisposition to some kind of color blindness means that there is no need for certain color words.

    • Crystal

      I’m more curious if the lack of word to differentiate blue and green is tied to the percentage of colorblind people of that nation. I’ve just read that a lot of filipinos are blue-green colorblind due to constant expose to a certain chemical solvent (they treat stomachache by applying that stuff) and they don’t even realize it. And my personal observation with lower economic and education class of south east Asian people, mostly of Melayu descents (Indonesian and Malaysian) eventhough they have different words for blue and green they tend to call blue as green. When you correct them, they’d usually go “oh yes, that’s blue.” but they would often say it’s green. I’m thinking they might be colorblind too to some degree because of traditional practices they do just like the filipinos.

      • Anthony

        I’ve never heard that about filipino, and I am filipino. I googled and couldn’t come up with any article about that. I’m interested in the article you present. What is the link to it?

        • Crystal

          It’s not an article, but a mere observation by this guy, and apparently I was wrong, it wasn’t chemical solvent, it was kerosene. Look for comment #3

          • atworkforu

            Even accepting your premise, the language would have evolved long before your solvent started damaging people.

          • undetected

            Both my wife and I were born and raised in the Philippines, in different regions, and neither of us are familiar with this practice, nor think of it as “common”.

  • Kay and Berlin weren’t the first to address this question. Their Basic Color Terms reiterates, more or less, the colour term sequence proposed by Lazarus Geiger more than a century earlier, in “On the Color Sense in Primitive Times and its Evolution” (1867).

    That’s according to Guy Deutscher, whose book Through the Language Glass examines this pocket of linguistic history in considerable detail and describes it as “one of the severest cases of collective amnesia in the history of science”…

    • Paul Kay

      It’s also according to Berlin and Kay, who discuss on pp. 134-151 of Basic Color Terms “The Growth of Color Terms, 100 Years of Theory.”

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  • Brilliant post, thank you. It’s interesting to see it broken down like this. Previously, I’d encountered this idea in relation to linguistics and art history, where (broadly speaking) artists who are from a Germanic-speaking country tend to use fewer shades than those from Romance-language speaking countries. The argument was that there are fewer distinctions between colours in these languages, rather than the supply of pigments being restricted (blue being a special case, though, with it needing lapis from Afghanistan for centuries).

  • Aatish, as far as I know there is no such word as “khiaw” in Vietnamese… But we do have the same phenomenon: “xanh” refers to both blue and green, and we distinguish the two by saying “xanh lá cây” (“xanh” tree leaves) and, well, I guess blue by default is just “xanh” but when pressed, we might say “xanh nước biển” (“xanh” sea water)… Will you tell us why girls are better at naming colors than guys? 😛

    • Whoops! I meant Thai, not Vietnamese. Fixed the mistake, thanks for catching. Very interesting about xanh, thanks for sharing that. As for girls versus guys, are you referring to the xkcd color survey? I though it was quite hilarious that the girls used more adjectives (light / dark / lime, etc) and the guys used more obscenities.

      • No, I didn’t know about the xkcd color survey, but it’s absolutely hilarious :). Is that where the inspiration came from?

      • Although what I had on my mind was that girls are more likely to give a label such as “salmon” than guys. But apparently his survey showed the opposite. Definitely a surprise 🙂

        • kirsty

          I’m guessing that the reason for this is that ‘salmon’ is a colour that is considered acceptable for men wear, whereas ‘pink’ is a colour that many men would not be seen dead in. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish them!

      • Ricky

        In Thai, the words for sky and light blue are synonymous, namely fah, we also have a distinction got dark blue, nam gnun. Though I’ve heard of the ocean referred to as khiaw, never once have I heard the sky referred to as such.

        • Justin Yoshida

          Neither have I. Also, when the ocean is referred to as khiaw in Thai, it means green, not blue AFAIK.

    • RixiM MixiR

      I am shocked that in all this time no one has replied to your question. Basically, because the genes that determine the color sensitivity of cones are on the X and Y chromosomes, women in general are more likely to have greater color sensitivity than men. This wikipedia article discusses the issue briefly:

      • eyeofbeholder

        A study/look at paternal vs. maternal society and it’s influence on color names would be an interesting related point.

  • Fascinating! Thanks for pulling all this disparate research together Aatish, and stretching my brain for today. Staying tuned for the next post!

    (On a related note, you might find this test interesting: What I’d love to see if  people from cultures with more color words would tend to do better distinguishing these fine shades, or not!) 

  • Alan Anderson

    What’s the oddball language with yellow-green-blue named with one word?

    • I think you’ll find this map interesting. It places languages based on the kinds (not number) of color terms: 

      Javae in Brazil and Lele in Chad have yellow/green/blue (hereafter known as yegrue 🙂

  • Abby Tabor

    Excellent!! I’ve always loved this subject (color & language) and you did a wonderful job of researching, presenting and explaining it.  Thank you! Can’t wait for the rest.
    Abby Tabor,

  • interesting… noticed long ago that Norwegians tend to call blue things (to my Canadian mind) purple and orange things yellow.

  • Christer Johansson

    Ani, & Aatish, I enjoyed reading this essay.
    As to womens color sense: there is in fact some small proportion of women that may have tetrachromatic color vision. They would experience color slightly different than the rest of us.
    A friend of mine saw more of yellow nuances than I could perceive at a distance, thus spotting mushrooms at quite a distance where I saw nothing.

    There is a mention of tetrachromatic color vision in wikipedia:

  • Nicole

    in mandarin, the terms qing and lui refer to green and lan is blue
    i don’t know the difference between qing and lui…i think qing is the lighter green and lui is the darker green
    but i’ve never known qing to refer to green.

  • Does native landscape determine the ‘crayolafication’ of a language? In which case languages in tropical locations would have some distinct advantage advantage… be more vivid colorful

  • Hr Ahmadi

    There is no Blue is the Quran either I just checked. There is 517 mentioned of “red” though!

  • So, if I had to explain the awesomeness of this finding in somewhat simpler layman terms, is the following right? ‘This means that no matter what part of the world you are from, you use “light” (white) and “dark” (black) as the minimum no. of words to describe color or you use up to 11 words to describe “basic” colors, and from these, you form islands of color (a spectrum of colors extending from one basic color in between, e.g. various shades of pinks).’Just want to get it right before nerdgasm-ing over the fantastic coming-together of science, language and color/design. 

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  • Anonymous

    Metaphorically speaking, we are all colors (race, culture, religious and political beliefs), and this article is not just about crayons, it’s also about how we view ourselves and each other as divided by the imaginary borders of identity.

  • Ralph Mens

    In Spanish, a distinction is made between blue (azul) and light blue (celeste). If you use them incorrect, a native speaker will get confused. For example, saying something is ‘azul’ when in fact it is ‘celeste’ will get you a reprimand. In English everyone will agree if you call something that is light blue just ‘blue’.

    • Víktor Bautista i Roca

      Are you confusing Spanish with Italian? In Spanish celeste is nothing but a shade of blue, and none will get confused.
      Maybe, just maybe, due to the big Italian immigration in Argentina, they might make this distinction.

      • Maria

        Viktor, I find your comment extremely surprising: I’ve never heard anyone call blue (azul) what is in fact light blue (celeste). To me, they are very much different colours. I am, as you suggest, Argentinian, but I haven’t heard this light blue/blue generelisation from any of my non-Argentinian Latin American, or Spanish friends.

        • Víktor Bautista i Roca

          In fact, I’ve never heard anyone but an Argentinian saying just “celeste” instead of “azul celeste” or “azul cielo”.
          Google “el cielo es azul”, 817.000 results vs. “el cielo es celeste” 32.800 results.
          So, you can see for everyone who calls the sky “celeste” there are 25 people who calls it “azul”. And even then, you should wonder how many of the ones who call it celeste consider it as different from “azul” as “rosa” is from “rojo”.

          • Fabrizio

            In Italian the two are different as described, “azzurro” is like the national football team t-shirt, while “celeste” is like a bright sky. But then, the two are mostly interchangeable, and nobody gets angry at you for using the wrong one!

          • Víktor Bautista i Roca

            I think the one they call “celeste” is the one you call azzurro, and the one they call “azul” is your blu.

          • Jeanne Heifetz

            The same is true in Russian — two different words for what we in English would call light and dark blue.

          • Fabienne

            “Celeste” derives from the Latin word “caelum”, meaning “sky”, and refers to a light blue the colour of the sky. Thus it seems to me that the use of the words “azzurro” and “celeste” got mixed up at some point.

        • Víktor Bautista i Roca

          According to the RAE dictionary saying “celeste” is just another way of saying “azul celeste”.
          Celeste does not appear in the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas.

  • GiselaGiardino

    The blue/green distinction is an old controversy not only inherent to different cultures but to the different sexes. In the colors like cyan or turquoise, some men tend to see them bluish rather than greenish… and women tend to see them more to the green side of the spectrum. I had a recurrent “argument” with my first boyfriend about Krusty’s hair (the clown of The Simpson). For me it’s of course green, while he saw it more like blue. And years later, in we brought this discussion on many times about the color we call cyan. Search Krusty in google images and you will see the color I am talking about, which I think is the one the article talks about.

    • Jenna Cody

      Interesting. I’m female and i see turquoise and cyan as blue shades.

  • Nazar

    Cool post, came here from HackerNews. Just to make my contribution, in my native language, which will be Turkmen (country: Turkmenistan) we have “ýaşyl” for green and “gök” for blue, even tho “ýaşyl” is jobless her, more like symbolic name because most people will just use “gök” for green. Here are some examples :
    Gök bazar (Green market), gök çyra (green light), gök önümler (vegetables). Ýaşyl maybe only used when one needs to explicitly distinguish between blue and green.

  • sj660

    Blue is in the Hebrew Bible, in Numbers 15:38. Techelet.

  • Víktor Bautista i Roca

    You are too English centered. You didn’t reach the differentiation between light and dark blue, as in Italian or Russian.

  • “There was no blue in the original Hebrew Bible, nor in all of Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey!” This seems to proved the Buddha’s observation that the ability of distinguishing (tell apart) and the defining (name it) is the source of our suffering!

    • nauplion

      Sort of like eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

  • Welsh has a similar green/blue category to the Japanese one. For a long time grass was blue and brown bread was red, and so on, but now that almost all Welsh speakers also speak English, the colour mapping is moving to be like the English one. A comparative study of the psycholinguistic history of colour in Welsh and Japanese would be really interesting.

  • Jenna Cody

    I like that you brought up Chinese, and I can understand that the example had to be constrained for the purposes of clarity and brevity, but I do feel it’s a bit misleading.

    “Qing” (青) mostly means green, and is most commonly used with limpid or foliage-colored greens: think mountains, water, leaves, forests, foreigners’ eyes. It only ever means blue in the sense that distant mountains (which I’d call blue) and water can be called “qing”. Certain teals might be called “qing”, I suppose, though I haven’t encountered this. Often times when I call a teal color “blue”, locals here in Taiwan categorize it as “green” – but they don’t say “qing”. They say “lv” (綠) which means green and only green in the sense that we understand it.

    But that is not the only word for these colors: besides lv, there’s “lan” (藍) for blue, which is blue as we understand it and includes concepts like sky.

    “Qing” these days is really only used in a more classical or old-style sense – now it’s all “lan” and “lv” and is quite clearly distinguished.

    Where the colors really get mixed up is in purple and pink – “zi se (紫色)” means purple, but I so often see it referring to a color I’d call pink. “fen hong se(粉紅色)”, or “powder red color” means “pink” but is not that distinctive and I only see it used for pinks on the red end of the scale.

    Also, orange and yellow. “Huang” means “yellow”, but i see it used to refer to things I’d call orange, and “jinhuang” or just “jin” or “gold-yellow” (or just “gold”) for yellow. They also have “juzi” which literally means “orange”, as in the fruit.

    Brown doesn’t seem to have its own color name – it’s “coffee color (kafei se)” as far as I’ve found, and older references seem to lump it with red or purple, and yet silver (yin) and gray (hui) are very much distinguished.

    So, I guess my point is that saying “qing” means “green or blue” in Chinese is over-simplifying it. “Qing” is not commonly used anymore, and there are two distinct other words for those two colors.

    • Jenna Cody

      One exception – I do think very light greens, like the color of mint ice cream, could be called “qing”.

      • Thanks for your detailed comments. I’ve updated the article to clarify this point.

        • Yokanise

          When I was studying Chinese our teacher said that the Yellow River should actually be called the Brown River because the Chinese word in question – I think it was “hwang” – could mean either color & since the river was always so dirty anyway, Brown River would be a better name!

          • There are many names for the ranges of colors in medieval Chinese; most come from their point of extraction:
            碧, deriving from lapis lazuli
            青, well covered above in blue-green; but can also mean “black” (as do other words 黑, probably from soot--even the modern word for green lü 綠, can mean greenish black when it is applied to the color of a young person’s hair).
            藍, which is derived from the indigo plant, and on and on.
            huang 黃, is certainly derived from the color of loess soil on the central plane and is closer to ochre, although it indicates a yellowish cast to brown (modern 大黃 for bright yellow), 丹 dan, cinnabar, and vermillion 朱, a derivative of cinnabar; plus a plethora of other names for red colors–絳, 赤, and of course the all purpose 紅. In most cases, the colors are not as well differentiated in modern times as they were in the 2500 years of continuous literature before the 20th century.

    • “qing” is still very commonly used in Singapore. I’m not too sure about China, though. And the colour name for brown is “褐色”.

    • Nik

      Go to Baidu Images and search for 青色.

      Also search for 蓝色 (blue), and 绿色 (green)

      To me 青色 most matches to what you get when you search for “cyan” on Google Images.

  • Blue has been technically discovered quite lately compared to other pigments. That would explain why it is so difficult to find traces of blue in ancient cultures and languages. French specialist in medieval history, Michel Pastoureau wrote a full book about it: “Blue: The History of a Color.”

  • Louise

    I see an inaccuracy in the first paragraph “the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world”. I’m not sure about all other places in the world, but after living in Japan for 4 years I can confidently say that Japanese traffic lights are not the same colour as those in Australia. Australian traffic lights have what I would call, a true green colour for ‘go’ whereas the Japanese ones are a blue/green. It is true that in the past, Japan had only one word ao/aoi (noun/adjective) which encompassed both blue and green, however as far as I am aware, they were able to distinguish colours within this group using reference points such as the sky and grass, (ie grass ao). This doesn’t make the rest of the article invalid, but it is disappointing to see such as inaccuracy in the first paragraph.

    • Yokanise

      I lived in Japan for 8 yrs. myself & I don’t know about Australian traffic lights but the Japanese ones didn’t seem that different from the American ones, which is where I’m from. So “aoshingo” would be “green signal light” & “aoba” would be green leaves, not “blue” because when we’re speaking English we need to use the appropriate colors. Concerning “midori,” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came into Japanese with the Chinese character that’s pronounced that way. It’s also pronounced “ryoku,” as in “ryokucha,” which means green tea.

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  • James Giangola

    In Ancient Greek, there are recurrent descriptions of the Mediterranean Sea as “wine” and “black.” This never made sense to me. Then, while traveling by boat from Sardinia to Sicily, I was gazing into the murky waters, and I finally got it! The ancients must have been referring to the deep saturation (the murkiness), rather than the hue (the more superficial, crayola categorization).
    Also, there is a shade of blue, which for me would be “aqua blue,” that Brazilians will insist is green. So for me, a certain shirt or car is blue (AZUL) but I make the cultural accommodation and say green (VERDE) so as not to be misunderstood. At first, I had the sensation of driving on the wrong side of the road, but you get used to it, and the novelty wears off.

    • nauplion

      For wine-dark sea. I “discovered” that in 1979 out on a fishingboat with friends, off the coast of Greece. I stood up to pour wine & saw the wine against the water. The intensity of color-saturation for both was the same

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  • Jeanne Heifetz

    As the author of a book on color names, I spent many absorbing hours reading theories of color space, and I’m very happy to be reading what’s happened in the past 15 years. However, I don’t see mention here of the counter-to-Berlin-and-Kay theories that looked at the source words of the “basic” color names in different cultures. For example, ao in Japanese comes from the dye plant, ai, which as a dyestuff covers the whole of the blue-green portion of the spectrum. Some cultures have what might at first seem to be peculiarly chosen “basic” color names until you learn their associations with the culture’s central food sources or dye plants, or precious commodities. The color name that covers both blue and green in many native languages of the American Southwest is also the name for the stone, turquoise. (In cultures where a staple food is poisonous when green and edible when red, you can be sure there are names for green and red.) In our own history, we have a very similar example to the “blue” traffic lights of Japan: “orange” didn’t enter English as a color name until the 16th century, after the fruit itself was first brought to England, quite late in the evolution of our color vocabulary, which is why we still refer to “red” hair.
    Another issue with Berlin & Kay’s early theories of the order of evolution of color names is that at some point, they had to translate the names their subjects gave to colors into English in order to assign them a place in their evolutionary chart. Often they did this using bilingual subjects, which is of course problematic, since they would already think/operate in two different linguistic color spaces. When they used dictionaries, how had the dictionary writer decided on the English equivalent of the color name? Finally, I would note that in your caption to the Berlin & Kay 400 shades chart, you say that most English speakers would come up with 11 color names. Most MALE English speakers might, but female speakers are far more likely to come up with dozens of color names without straining. Girls are culturally conditioned to be familiar with this terminology from an early age.


      Great, thank for sharing!Although what I had on my mind was that girls are more likely to give a
      label such as “salmon” than guys. But apparently his survey showed the
      opposite. Definitely a surprise 🙂

    • See “There’s no such color as Ecru” (from a column in the SF Chronicle. I have a copy up at

    • Excellent additional points, Jeanne! Re: the last, though, I think the idea is that English speakers, male and female, will only come up with 11 basic color terms. English speakers, male or female, are definitely going to come up with teal, aqua, magenta, maroon, etc., but that’s not the question. English speakers won’t describe pink as “light red”. English speakers will, however, describe maroon as “dark red”. That’s how you can tell that pink is a basic color term and maroon is not. If English speakers are forced to answer “Is x color a light or dark version of y color, or is it an entirely separate color in its own right?”, they’re likely to come up with 11. This differs from Russian speakers, for example, who are likely to come up with 12—and speakers of other languages who will come up with fewer, based on the color terms available in their language.

  • Chris Gudmann

    It is curious( at least to me) that the diversification (elaboration, increase in complexity ) of the color space follows closely the CHAKRA system of the Vedas/esoteric Hinduism and Buddhism with RED being the Base Chakra, rising through green and blues to purple at the Crown Chakra. Make of this what you will.
    WONDERFULLY thought-provoking article. Thank you!

  • Jerry Schwarz

    I don’t have anything technical to add, but I have an anecdote. In 1967 or 1968 I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I got a job writing a program to analyze some data collected by a psychology professor. He had a grant to determine the largest collection of color words and phrases that could be reliably distinguished. In other words if you had a bunch of wires with different colored coatings and you asked someone to pick out the light blue one would everyone pick the same one. This was obviously a practical problem and I think the funder was Ma Bell. My recollection is that the best my program found was seven names.

    If anyone can point me to current work along these lines I would appreciate it.

  • Jennifer Gemmell

    Yes, it’s my experience that women are much more attuned to colour subtleties than men, which is probably why so many have flower names – periwinkle, violet, rose, fuscia, lilac, orchid to name a few. I always thought it was my art training that enabled me to say things to my husband like, “Those grey trousers don’t go well with that jacket. One’s green and the other’s pinkish.” He’d look at me in complete mystification, seeing only that one was darker than the other. Is this a matter of training or a gender/genetic difference I wonder?

    • My sister’s experience with teaching art, many boys were colour blind, a genetic tendency? Girls werent.

      • manur

        Yes, color blindness has genetic causes, in most cases of a deficient gene on the X chromosome. As women have two of them, there is an important statistical probability that at least one of their two X chromosomes will feature the “good” gene, which is enough to have a regular color vision. Men have only one X chromosome, so no second one to make up for a “faulty” one : they make up the huge majority of color blinds (and it has been transmitted to them by their mother, as this X chromosome can only come from her — the father gives his Y chromosome).

  • nauplion

    In Plato’s dialogue, Timaeus, sect. 68, there is a color analysis, and description of color combinations: red when mixed with black and white becomes purple. White and bright on black becomes dark blue. Dark blue and white is light blue. [Jowett trans.] Flame color and black make leek-green. Of course, this depends to some extent on the understanding of the translator.

    • That sounds like a pretty good description of some of the effects you get mixing many paint pigments. Red and blue do not make purple 99% of the time, this is because traditional paint colors are not pure pigments (like we see now in CMYK printing) and so they are often a little warmer or cooler and mix in interesting ways. Mix titanium white and mars black and you get a very different color than zinc white and ivory black.

  • nauplion

    There is almost no color in Homer at all, and the colors that come to
    mind — melanos, xanthos & glaukos — get a broad spectrum of
    translations. They reflect qualities of darkness, blonde/red/light and
    light blue/grey/green rather than pigments. There is much emphasis on
    light/dark. Things look as if they are made of gold, they are not the
    color gold. There is much blood: there is no need for “red”.

    Helen spins iodnephes wool which is taken to be dark violet or purple:
    the darkest pigment is assumed for royalty, but the porphyreos dye that
    would have been used covers a spectrum from pale pink to deep purple,
    & porphyris is a purple garment or a red bird. Cyanus makes a blue
    color in glass, but it refers to the substance used for the color and
    the reader knows it is that dark blue of Egyptian glass. Chloe describes
    the color of young plants and leaves, but it also describes something
    very young, or unseasoned wood.

    One should be very careful assuming colors in any translation of Homer.
    When you read the Iliad and Odyssey, you intuitively know what the
    colors are, but not because they are named.

  • As a Sinlogist, I believe it is something of a myth that ao in Japanese or qing in Chinese refers to both green and blue as color. The truth can be seen from the usage in Thai: “In the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue.” Indeed, the word ao/qing refers not to the color as such but the overall quality of the sea and sky, including color but also, and more importantly, transparency and lucidness. We have a word for that in Finnish (which has no color implication, though, but you can only use to it describe the sky or water), ‘kuulas’.

    • Miles Bader

      One thing is pretty clear: “ao” in Japanese very clearly doesn’t mean “blue” (the article seems simply wrong on this point).

      I’m not sure there’s any really distinct category it falls into, as it has connotations of freshness, paleness, etc, etc. It is also clearly used to refer to many many things which we would call either “blue” or “green” in English, as well as things that have no color at all (e.g. someone’s face when they’re sick)…

      Still, given that very pedestrian objects like traffic lights are “ao,” it obviously isn’t limited to poetic/natural concepts… :]

  • Eleanor Clark

    I loved this post, partly because I am a linguist, but also because I am a synesthete…and I have a friend whose particular brand of synesthesia has her correlating music and colour.

  • Joey

    Other good reads:

    First one below is a good introduction to thinking about color vision as a combination of our physical hardware, our social nature, and how the two have evolved to interact with one another across history and as manifested by different cultures.

    The second is a collection of essays for the advanced reader. I particularly enjoyed Churchland’s essay “On the Reality (and Diversity) of Objective Colors;” he uses calculus to explain why we assign objects a single color mentally, even though most objects vary in color under different lighting situations (in over-simplified terms: e.g., not all “green” things look the same under different types of lights)

  • Great article, but just one thing. In Korean, “pureu-da” can refer to green or blue. But Korean does have separate terms for green and blue as well. Moreover, in general “pureu-da” refers to bright blue or green, and rarely used for dark green or dark blue.

  • Ayah Abdul-Rauf

    This is so fascinating! I’m writing a novel about a world that happens to be colorless and this is enormously helpful.


    Neither have I. Also, when the ocean is referred to as khiaw in Thai, it means green, not blue AFAIK.

  • savannah mccarthy

    wats the summary of this article

  • Tony

    I didn’t see this mentioned in the comments, so for what it’s worth, I think that “ao-kusai” meaning immature may have an entirely different origin than calling a person “green” in English. In English, I’ve always assumed that the comparison is to a tree sapling or the like. However, in Japanese, a similar term is “shiri ga aoi” meaning the person’s “butt is blue”. This refers to the “Mongolian spot” phenomenon that Japanese and other Asian babies are often born with literally blue rear ends, with the color extending from as far up as the lower back and as far down as the upper legs. It tends to be what I’d call the blue or even purple side of the spectrum, not very green.

  • Thea Boodhoo

    Did anyone consider the physical environment of these cultures as a determining factor? That would affect which colors have a practical meaning day to day, as well as which colors can be easily reproduced in visual communication. I would assume that the ability to reproduce a color creates an immediate need for that color to have a name.
    “Hey can you hand me the yellow crayon?”
    “…Which yellow?”

    • Thea Boodhoo

      Which helps explain why blue comes so late, as it’s one of the hardest colors to reproduce with natural materials

    • Thea Boodhoo

      Also “because biology” isn’t an answer. Biology is the way it is for reasons

  • Edith

    In Hebrew, the word for vegetables is “yerakot” which comes from the word “yarok” which is green in Hebrew The word for the color red is “adom”, which comes from the word “dam” which is blood in Hebrew. That’s all that i can think now but maybe there are more examples…


    • YoineCohen

      Yerakot is mentioned in the Talmud but not in the Bible. The color Yarok is mentioned and questioned in the Talmud as to what is the actual color.
      See: Tractate Chulin 47:2 and Sukkah 31 and the Talmud has 3 separate names for shades of “Yarok” If you read Hebrew you can see this discussion [] which is an interesting short survey on classical Talmudical commentators who explore the meaning of the word “Yarok” [Yerakot – as in greens- plural] The Tosafists (1100-1328) give different names using French and German 1) “indish” [indigo]; 2) the color of the sky; 3) “vird” or Vert in French. Some Tosafists interpreted the Talmudical mention of an Etrog that is Yarok as a Karti as an Entrog that is blue. But then the question is the blue really blue or is it close to greenish or deep green.
      The issue is discussed in many halachic Jewish sources

  • Gabriel Eggers

    It seems to me there is another distinction to be made that this study at least seemingly fails to make. People have a certain number of colors that they self identify because they find the distinctions important or useful, but their range of color distinction may actually be greater then that in response to someone else. While a person may not identify Lime or Olive as a separate color from green when set in front of a chart, if someone where to refer to that color such as to tell them to being them the ‘olive plates’ they might be able to make the distinction and bring the correct ones even if there were plate of other shades of green.

  • gfriend

    Fascinating article!

    It echoes for me the the rarely-named battle between digital and analog. The efficiencies and delusions of slicing up the unitary world into discrete slices. Audiophiles rail about the loss of richness in digital music — lots of sampling, but ignoring the “in-betweens.”

    Reality is analog, not digital, you see. Except the analog has digital within it, as the quantumistas remind us, and the digital analog within IT. Particle AND wave. Turtles all the way down.

    PS: Regarding: “In other words, rainbows have seams,” no, No, NO! PEOPLE have seams. (Or so it seems.)

  • I remember living with my 2 yo the week he made the transition into naming colors. A very verbal kid, he oddly as it seemed to me called everything red except red which he usually called green. after an unusually fractious weekend he suddenly had all the colors correctly – including pink and brown. I saw this an an examplar of the stress of cognitive development. Now I see it in a different light. All complicated by the later learned fact that he, his sister and I all come up color “blind” in the blue to purple range. But who knew? We just called it as we saw it.

  • Reminds me of the colour orange in German. There only used to be the colour “Gelb” (yellow). That’s why carrots are called “Gelberüben” (literally “yellow turnips”).

    • Fellwalker

      Which means they got the later genetically bred carrots, as the original wild carrots were purple.

      • kilianmuster

        Which might just mean that explicitly calling them yellow was a way to differentiate them from the original “purple” carrots (just “Rüben”).

        Actually there are many, many other kinds of turnips now out of fashion that my granmother still used for cooking…

  • As a Japanese student in the late 80s, I learned Aoi as being Blue-green, and never really understood why my teacher couldn’t explain when not to use Midori, so thank you!

    I understand men and women perceive colours differently. Does this change the map boundaries, or just the detail?

  • V

    fascinating! On to the next part. Just a question to put out there: does anyone know WHY the rainbow shrimp has a much larger range of colours that it can see?

  • Orange

    blood-like is a colour word. Some other culture might say we don’t have a colour word for “orange”, we just compare it to a fruit. If we always make the same comparison then that is the word for that colour and the colour is clearly defined. You will find the etymology of most colours has to do with comparing them with something of that colour. Sometimes the comparison is clear, like with orange or cream, sometimes it gets lost as the language changes.

  • thuy mai

    oh, it’s great

  • Chanel C.

    I see a mistake in this article. The word khiaw most definitely means green, however there are separate words for sky and sea. There’s actually two words for blue: dark blue, and light blue. The word for light blue,fa, is used for the sky, which can sort of be roughly translated to mean “light blue belly”. The word for dark blue, ngum ngen, is used for the sea. If you refer to Thai Buddhist monks’ robes, which can vary in color from a dark golden-y yellow, to bright orange, they actually have a couple specific names, such as, gla, but I’ve also heard the robes’ colors to be referred to as just “yellow” despite them sometimes being BRIGHT ORANGE.

  • joanw

    has anyone done a similar study to see if the 12-tone/what we call half-step divisions of an octave present in western music are in any way universal? or the urge to resolve the dominant into the tonic?

    this is a completely fascinating article.

  • David Irving

    A few incorrect implications in this post you made. You imply that the US invented green for the Japanese people as Midori. Though this is false, you even discredited this idea in your own post. The Japanese already called green Midori for nearly 1000 years before the US ever got there.

    They literally called green things Midori already, this is blatant in Japanese scripts and books as well from the 13th and 16th centuries. All that changed after occupation was that Midori itself was broadened, meaning that shades like Turquoise that we define as being slightly more green than blue would have been pushed there to be put within the Midori category. Where are Midori before this war significantly further away in the colour palette from Turquoise and only really was talking about things that were blatantly green.

    Also as far as these studies, I saw a person talking about some study that they English did, they were doing this to some African tribe. Basically they were trying to prove that a lack of language differentiation between a range of colours means that the subject actually can’t see the actual difference.
    But this is clearly ridiculous and this is very easy to disprove, and these old studies done were clearly based in prejudice and nationalistic and even racist type outlooks.

    The way to easily prove that cultures which don’t have a distinct emphasis on the hue changes in a certain area of a colour chart is simply looking at art that they have made.
    Let’s just use Japan for an easy example, since they made a lot of art and a lot of it is very old.
    You can see the colours of water and the sky and plants are all correct, so the physical differentiation is there, though they were just treated like variations of the same broader colour.

    So say that the Japanese saw green as blue is incorrect, as technically Ao wasn’t for just blue as we westerners know it. Ao instead was for a range of cool type colours, so you could really say that Ao can’t be compared to a single colour that we use in the west, but it was a definition above this, such as cool colour as I have said.
    So the idea that Ao is blue and that the Japanese are saying that something that is green is blue is a bad misrepresentation.