Colour words and SLA

I’ve written about colour a bunch before. really. a bunch. But I’ve recently come upon an interesting argument. If it were just one person who I’d heard it from, I’d not be bothered, but since it’s come up on three separate occasions in the past month, I feel it’s at least worth addressing.

It’s essentially this:

[Language X] is inherently more difficult to learn, all other things being equal, because of the number of colour words it has.

The problem with this is that it was coming from various non-native English speakers, and it was in the context of comparing English to Chinese/Korean/Japanese/whatever. When pressed, they gave the example that English has “yellow” whereas their language has a whole bunch of words for various shades of yellow. Which of course isn’t really true. What was actually happening is that their own English vocabulary was limited when it came to colour words, so that they really only knew a dozen, if that. I know a number of Chinese colours, but I must admit I know very few in Arabic aside from the simple common colours like red, blue, green, purple…

The interesting thing to me on colour terms in a language is how flexible they are over time. Orange didn’t exist until recently in English, and the word is actually referring to the fruit. Arabic has this as well, though the word in Arabic for the fruit is برتقال, which is nearly identical to the word for Portugal, برتغال. This may be due to the likelihood that the Portuguese brought the fruit to the Near East. The colour name, in Arabic, is برتقالي, simply an adjectival form of the fruit. Chinese, as well, has 橙色, “orange coloured”, as the colour term. Pink, as well, was named after a flower in the genus Dianthus called “pinks”.

Regardless of whether or not there’s anything to the argument about language complexity (there isn’t), it’s an interesting way to compare languages for a new learner of a second language. I wonder if anyone has encountered this before. I’d love to hear about it if you have.

10 responses to “Colour words and SLA”

  1. Robert Delfs says:

    Fascinating topic. Comparing color terms and color map boundaries among speakers of different languages has long been been part of the debate between skeptics and supporters of Benjamin Whorf’s eponymous hypothesis (aka the Sapir-Whorfian Hypothesis), i.e., that languages structure the ways in which speakers conceptualize the world.

    In Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969). Berlin and Kay classified languages into seven groups, depending on the number of basic color terms. Stage 1 languages have only two, dark/cool versus light/warm, which must make clothes shopping and accessorizing easier than it is in English. Stage II languages include a term for red, while Stage III languages have either green or yellow (III), Stage IV have both, and Stage V languages also recognize blue.

    Without doubt, my favorite Chinese color has to be 青 — how can one not love language with a word that means blue, green or black, but only in reference to nature, i.e., the blue of the sky or the green of leaves or pine needles.

    Berlin and Kay discovered that many languages don’t have separate words for blue and green. Vietnamese and Thai(possibly following Chinese) uses the same word for the color of the sky and the color of leaves. Japanese aoi (which uses the Chinese character 青 as a stem in its written form) is used for green things (like traffic lights) that Chinese would say are 綠. There are similar things going on between English and Welsh. Clearly, in some languages the difference between blue and green is not so clear at all.

    Languages with 8 more basic colors, including both English and Chinese, are considered Stage VII. Since Chinese has unambiguous terms for blue and green, 青 may be a relict from a simpler linguistic stage in the evolution of the language.

    Incidentally, I believe I have heard the color we call “orange” referred to as a red (红色) in China often as I have heard “橙色”, including by people whose business is managing 橘子 orchards.

  2. Sima says:

    Interesting that you’ve brought this up. I’ve had several strange colour experiences in the last couple of weeks.

    I asked for a 橙色 ball from a bag containing orange balls and yellow balls and was given a yellow one, just a couple of days ago. Though it’s not uncommon for people to refer to the balls (which we use for regular training sessions) as either 黄 or 红 (suggesting that 橙 might indeed fall within the bounds of 红.

    Yellow is an interesting colour, as noted above. Though Chinese has 棕色 and 褐色 for the colour English speakers call brown, Chinese speakers seem to frequently use 黄色refer to things I would call brown. I wonder whether English is a little strange here.

    I suspect I find it very hard to think of anything wooden as yellow, unless it has actually been painted yellow. But Chinese speakers seem quite happy with referring to something like pine as being yellow. Likewise hair, sand and other natural things. Is it possible that the material, rather than the actual colour, shapes our choice of colour word in English?

    As for 青, that’s a strange thing indeed. Try asking a few Chinese speakers to list the colours of the rainbow. There seem to be two commonly used versions: 赤橙黄绿青蓝紫 (note 青 in the fifth position, 蓝 sixth) and 红橙黄绿蓝靛紫 (蓝 fifth). This obviously doesn’t shed much light on what 青 actually represents, but it intrigues me.

  3. pc says:

    I think the reason that 青 has such a wide range of colors it can be associated with is because its original definition (or at least, that I have encountered) is “竹皮曰青” 【韻會】 (Bamboo skin is called 青 – Yùn Huì ). And since the color of bamboo really depends on when you see it, this ambiguous definition makes sense.

    In regards to 黄, the usage of it referring to brown things or “earthly” things comes from the contrast in Classical Chinese. We have 天地 and parallel to that we have 玄黄. 玄 is the color of 天 and 黄 is the color of 地. I’m guessing that the more precise disambiguation of terms comes from contact with Western cultures. And on that note, my favorite color in Chinese is by far and away 玄 (or fuscus) – the color of the sky at night.

    The more important question is why does image searching 苍 bring up pictures of women in bikinis? Doesn’t 苍 mean blue (or something similar)?

  4. Matt says:

    Here are a few even earlier definitions of qing 青 (in chronological order):

    Er ya 爾雅 (pre-Qin, maybe 3rd C BCE): “青,謂之蔥。”
    Qing, this is called ‘green onion.'”

    Shuo wen jie zi 說文解字 (E. Han, c. 100 CE): “東方色也。”
    “The color of the East.”

    Shi ming 釋名 (likely E. Han, c. 200 CE):”靑,生也。象物之生時色也。”
    Qing is life. It resembles the color of living things while they are alive.”

    And from the Xunzi 荀子 (“Qin xue” 勤學) (late Warring States, probably 3rd C BCE): “青、取之於藍,而青於藍。”
    Qing which is taken from an indigo plant is more qing than an indigo plant.”

    So all of this supports its having referred to colors from dark blue to bright green for quite a long time.

  5. Kellen says:

    I meant to touch on 青 in the post but I seem to have forgotten. In Japanese and Korean it has a mixed-meaning, by English standards. The Blue House where Korea’s president lives uses 青 for ‘blue’. Japanese traffic lights, the green ones are interchangeably blue or green (though in America the green ones are far bluer than they used to be to help people with red-green colour-blindness). I’d call 青 a dark blue-green. Tarnished bronze would be 青. I’ve had people call a deep navy shirt I own 青 at the same time as calling 韭菜 青.

    I’ve often heard wood as yellow, which is no more absurd than the poplar or pine wood being called brown in English.

  6. cephaloless says:

    I was going to say something about reading into historical development a little too much but then “青 is life” fits with something else I was going to say…

    青 meaning green or blue yes but I was not aware of black. 青 as a color I think refers to the liveliness or freshness represented by the color more than the color itself.

    About the other colors, could it just be an experience/judgement call type of thing like talking orange color with people who grows reddish oranges. This experience thing also goes all the way to a misunderstanding. For example, what’s the color of a mountain? One may say brown/yellow and another may say green (青) just because one came from a desert and the other came from a place that rains a lot. Besides that, these are some unusual color stories, especially 赤橙黄绿青蓝紫.

    And 苍 probably brings up pictures of the same well endowed woman in bikinis (or less).

  7. [Randy, you seem to have triggered the spam filter. Can’t imagine why. Sima]

    Yes, it’s not women, it’s just one, Sora Aoi (苍井空/蒼井そら). The careful observer will discover why she rose to the top of Google searches for that character.

  8. Claw says:

    It might be interesting to note that in Cantonese, 青 has shifted its meaning so that it more often refers to a light green or yellowish-green color (see

  9. Jean says:

    I am OK with the fact that 青 can represent a large panel of different colors, but then how are you supposed to do when it is used in a dictionary definition ?

    I recently met 骢, and the Pleco definition (规范词典) gives 青色与白色夹杂的马. Google Images was not as useful as usual, so does anyone know what that means ?

  10. Sima says:

    Can of worms.

    As far as I can tell, it’s just possible that 骢 might be a piebald, but seems more likely to be a grey.

    There’s a detailed Wikipedia page on equine colours and though there’s no Chinese version of this page, there is a list of Chinese horse vocabulary on the 马 page. 骢 is given the definition 青白相间,类似兰色的马, which may in itself raise a question about what’s going on with 兰色. Anyone care to explain?

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