Blue, green, and grue

Color names are a mystery.

At least to me.

Take a look at the color chips in the image. If we limit ourselves to common English color names (excluding, that is, the myriad of names used by both types of painters and the like), I suppose we might call all nine colors shades of green. Or maybe blue. Or both. I have no idea!

Again, let me stress that we’re talking about basic color names, not emerald or light green or aqua.

The rightmost chip in the middle row is the only one that I’m convinced is green. The leftmost one in that row is probably some shade of blue. The center and right ones in the top row look blue to me. Note that this isn’t something like the “color of the dress” controversy from four years ago: this is a linguistic matter, not a color perception issue.

Anyway, one result that I learned from both psychology classes and linguistics classes as an undergraduate is that basic color terminology varies from language to language. This phenomenon shows up a variety of ways:

  • The boundary between adjacent colors on the spectrum can shift. A spectrum, after all, is continuous, but color names are discrete. So a specific tone can be considered on the blue side of the line in one language and on the green side in another.
  • Actually, it’s not a color spectrum (one-dimensional) but a color solid (three-dimensional), with axes representing hue, brightness, and saturation. But “adjacent” colors are indeed along a spectrum, usually hue but possibly any axis.
  • A “basic” color name in one language can be split into two colors in another language. English, for example, has only one basic color name for the blue portion of the spectrum — blue — whereas Russian has one name for light blue and one for dark blue. On the other hand, English has separate names for blue and green where Tahitian considers them to be shades of the same color. Most Americans probably consider English to be “right” in both cases, thinking that Russian distinguishes too many colors and Tahitian not enough.
  • One can (somewhat) predict which colors will be named in languages that have N names, for small values of N. For instance, a language with three color names will have black, white, and red.

The first three of these observations are ones that I learned as an undergraduate; the fourth one I learned more recently, only in this millennium. Nautilus has a fascinating article on the subject, connecting psychology, linguistics, anatomy, and philosophy; its conclusions may be a bit too sweeping, especially about Whorfianism, but read it anyway. You’ll learn a lot from it, not just what grue means.


Categories: Linguistics