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All The Colours, Including Grue: How Languages See Colours Differently


Colours are easy, right? They’re one of the
first things you learn as a kid. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white, black,
grey, brown, pink. And then when you learn other languages, all you have to do is learn
the new words for the same colours. Except. That’s not the way it works. That
English colour system with its nicely defined names? It doesn’t map onto other languages. Quick heads up: I am massively simplifying
here. Check the references if you want to know more details. The most common difference — or at least,
the most commonly-studied difference — is whether blue and green are different colours,
or different shades of the same colour, one which English linguistics refer to as grue.
Vietnamese, for example, uses the same basic word or lexeme for blue and green: they can
be literally translated as leaf grue or ocean grue. Does that seem weird? It shouldn’t. That’s
just a simple change in where you draw a line on the wheel of hues. The Ancient Greeks,
on the other hand, classified colours not by hue, but by lightness. So they had one
lexeme — one main word — for dark blue, green and brown… and one word for light
blues, greens and greys. We use one word, blue, for two very different
colours. But in Russian, there are two different words for what we’d call dark blue and light
blue. And that really shouldn’t seem strange to English speakers, because that’s exactly
what we do with dark red, and light red — or as we call it, pink. In 1969, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay released
a book that claimed to track the evolution of colour in languages. According to Berlin
and Kay, languages start out with just words for dark-cool colours and light-warm colours,
then gain a word for red, then green and yellow, then blue, brown, and the rest of what English
refers to as the spectrum. There is some debate over how accurate this
is, and by some debate, I mean this is a really controversial subject in linguistics and has
been for decades. I’m skimming over the very basics here, but there are reams of research,
going into some very deep claims that I’m not vaguely qualified to discuss. Lots of
linguistics with very impressive degrees have very strong and very different opinions on
this. Something as apparently simple as colour differences
highlight just how tricky translation and cross-cultural communication can be. And the
debate goes a level deeper than that: it’s about whether the words we know, and the languages
we learn, influence the way we interpret the world, just reflect our existing interpretations.
The answer is: I don’t know. No-one does, really. Not yet. The answer is probably somewhere
in between, because language is complicated. People are complicated. And sometimes, things
really aren’t just black and white. I really need to write better puns. [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

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